How temple movement helped BJP
On 9 November, 2019, the Supreme Court paved the way for the construction of a Ram temple on 2.77 acres of land in Ayodhya where the Babri mosque stood until 6 December 1992. The judgment marks the closure of an inter-religious, legal and political dispute which has lasted for well over a century.
The political dispute on the issue was magnified manifold when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) actively decided to make construction of the Ram temple a political plank in the 1991 elections. Party leader Lal Krishna Advani took out a Rath Yatra demanding construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya in 1990. To be sure, the BJP has had varying articulations on the issue. Its election manifestos are the biggest proof.
Ram Janmabhoomi (even Ayodhya) does not feature in the BJP’s 1984 manifesto, its first as a political party. In 1989, the BJP manifesto says the following on the issue: “By not allowing the rebuilding of the Ram Janma Mandir in Ayodhya, on the lines of Somnath Mandir built by the Government of India in 1948, it (the government) has allowed tensions to rise, and gravely strained social harmony”.
The context for this posturing was the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to open the locks of the Babri Moqsue in 1985, which was seen by many as an attempt to balance communal equations after his government overruled the Shahbano verdict of the Supreme Court.
In the 1991 manifesto, the BJP’s tone becomes stronger on the Ayodhya issue. The manifesto says, “It seeks the restoration of Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya only by way of a symbolic righting of historic wrongs, so that the old unhappy chapter of acrimony could be ended, and a Grand National Reconciliation effected”.
The BJP was fighting the 1991 elections in the backdrop of Lal Krishna Advani taking a Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990, which was interrupted by his arrest in Bihar.
It needs to be kept in mind that the BJP’s temple push also came after the announcement of 27% Other Backward Class (OBC) reservations, as recommended by the Mandal Commission report, by the VP Singh government.
This move had the potential of consolidating the entire OBC vote behind parties championing the social justice plank.
Kamandal, as the temple push is popularly referred to was also a manoeuvre against the Mandal politics of consolidating the socially oppressed.
In the 1996 elections, which were held after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, the BJP recalibrated its tone on the issue. “On coming to power, the BJP Government will facilitate the construction of a magnificent Shri Ram Mandir at Janmasthan in Ayodhya which will be a tribute to Bharat Mata”, its 1996 manifesto says.
The 1998 manifesto too reiterates the facilitation line.
Curiously, the party went to the polls with a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) manifesto in the 1999 elections, which does not even mention Ayodhya. This was a tactical compromise to building an alliance which was necessary for forming a government at the centre.
The 2004 manifesto of the party adopts a completely different tone on the issue.
It says: “The BJP remains committed to its stand that the judiciary’s verdict in this matter should be accepted by all. However, we believe that dialogue, and a negotiated settlement in an atmosphere of mutual trust and goodwill, are the best way of achieving this goal. The BJP appeals to the religious and social leaders of the Hindu and Muslim communities to speed up the process of dialogue and bring it to an amicable and early fruition”.
The demolition of the Babri mosque was a game changer in India’s politics. How did it help the BJP, though? It is instructive to look at the BJP’s electoral performance, especially vis-à-vis the Congress, which it has now replaced as the national political hegemon.
Before the BJP came into being in 1980, its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh used to have a political arm called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) which was formed in 1951 and merged into the Janata Party in 1977. The BJS had a vote share of 9.3% and 7.4% in the 1967 and 1971 elections, before it merged with the Janata Party. The BJP’s vote share in 1984 was exactly what the BJS had in 1971, 7.4%.
In 1989, this crossed double digits, but at 11.4%, it was still significantly less than the Congress’s 39.5% figure. 1989 to 1991 is the period when the BJP saw the biggest jump in its vote share in proportional terms. It increased its share 1.8 times to reach 20.1%. Barring 2009, the BJP never went below the 20% vote share mark after 1991.
The BJP is only the second party after the Congress, to have achieved a 20% plus vote share in more than one election. (See Chart 1).
This additional 10% vote share, which made the BJP the second national player in Indian politics, is the tangible benefit the BJP reaped from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
However, it would be entirely wrong to assume that the BJP owes its current political dominance solely to the Ram temple issue. Between 1991 and 2009, the BJP’s vote share hovered around the 20% mark. It was only after Narendra Modi assumed leadership in 2014 that the BJP crossed the 30% vote share threshold and got a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, which increased further in 2019.
A region-wise analysis of the BJP’s electoral performance highlights this. India has been seen through six sub-regions for the purpose of this analysis: North (Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Chandigarh), the Hindi Belt (Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan), East (West Bengal and Odisha), North-East (Assam and seven other north-eastern states), West (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu) and South (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep).
It was in the Hindi belt that the BJP received its biggest boost between 1989 and 1991, its vote share jumping by 10 percentage points. These gains came largely at the cost of the Congress, which, post-1989, has never been able to cross 30% vote share in the region.
The BJP also went beyond the 30% vote share level in the West in 1991, but it had already reached a 25% vote share there in 1989. The only other sub-regions where the BJP has ever had a vote share of 30% or more are the East and North-East in 2019. (See Chart 2).
These numbers capture the electoral gains which the Ram temple issue brought for the BJP. It was able to firmly establish itself as a national player by overtaking the Congress in the Hindi belt states. The post-Ayodhya generation of Bharatiya Janata Party leadership with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at its core, has consolidated the party’s national party status as the all-India hegemon, especially in the non-Hindi speaking regions.
However, the launchpad for the current dominance was built entirely by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.