Ram and Rama: Why temple politics doesn’t ring a bell in South India | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Ram and Rama: Why temple politics doesn’t ring a bell in South India

Jan 11, 2024 07:14 PM IST

With the elections a few months away, the BJP hopes for rich dividends from the Ram temple inauguration. Will the southern states vote for it in large numbers?

The story began in 1853, long before India became an independent nation when one of the first recorded incidents of violence over the holy site of Ayodhya took place during the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. Communal clashes of varying intensity continued for six years until the British government stepped in to insufficiently resolve the issue in 1859, by allowing Muslims and Hindus access to the inner and outer courts respectively of the then-standing Babri Masjid.

Ram Mandir is ready for “pran pratishtha” (consecration ceremony) of Ram Lalla (the child Ram) on January 22. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Ram Mandir is ready for “pran pratishtha” (consecration ceremony) of Ram Lalla (the child Ram) on January 22. (HT Photo)

In November 2019, the Supreme Court of India settled the dispute over the Ayodhya site, which many Hindus believe is the birthplace of Ram, which has witnessed tensions, terrorist attacks, and temple movements.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) kept the issue alive, mobilising devotion for electoral triumphs. However, the potential of votes has till now, been restricted to the Hindi-speaking northern belt ---Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar --- and to the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The four southern states that existed before the bifurcation of the Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and the Union Territories of Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Lakshadweep were insulated from the BJP’s rhetoric. Even in the early 1990s, when senior BJP leader LK Advani led a ‘rath yatra’ from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ movement had little impact on electioneering in the South though a large number of volunteers travelled to participate in the yatra.

Why did the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ movement’s repercussions not scale the Vindhyas all these years? Even with the upcoming inauguration of the Sri Ram temple in Ayodhya and the general elections, the response from Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala is muted. Those who have watched this movement unfold and the BJP’s electoral gains mount offer many reasons.

Australian diplomat, writer, and war veteran Sir Walter Crocker wrote in his 1966 book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, “South India has counted for too little in the Indian Republic… because the South has a superiority in certain important things - in its relative lack of violence, its lack of anti-Muslim intolerance, its lack of indiscipline and delinquency in the universities, in its better educational standards, its better government, and its cleanliness, in its practice of corruption, and its little taste for Hindu revivalism.”

Barring the issue of corruption which has been rampant with the uncovering of many scams in the years after that, psephologists agree with Crockers’ observations offering an additional dimension of thought that people in the south of the Vindhyas did not experience the horrors of Partition and, thereby, were shielded from enduring its bitter legacies. This, coupled with the fact that many Hindus believe Ayodhya is Ram’s birthplace, made the battle for retaining ownership of the temple all the more protracted.

Economist and political commentator, Dr Pentapati Pulla Rao said understanding the political consciousness of people residing in the five states would help us grasp why the Ram Janmabhoomi movement has had less than salutary consequences here. “Rama in southern India is not a muscular, Kshatriya king with deep political undertones. He is revered and worshipped, but the electorate will not allow him to be tethered to the ballot boxes.”

The distinct identities of Ram and Rama

Each village in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana has a Rama temple enshrined but has never been swayed by political outfits seeking to turn the temple movement into an electoral issue.

In the 1990s, when the rest of India was gripped by LK Advani’s rath yatra and religious politics, software parks and pharmaceutical units sprang up in the southern states to take advantage of the liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation reforms.

Susarla Nagesh, a senior journalist from Hyderabad who has covered elections since the 1970s said, “LK Advani never toured the South. So, the BJP never had the lead in its pencil when it came to the Ram Janmabhoomi politics in the states south of the Vindhyas. Also, Hindi was the language of dissent and dissertations before, during, and after the rath yatra. This automatically left out a huge population from participating in the movement.”

What's more, the BJP was never in power in any of the southern states until 2008 when Karnataka elected the saffron party to power. So, effectively, the cadre re-enforcement activities are less than two decades old in any of the states mentioned unlike in the Hindi-speaking belt where there was a periodic dominance of the BJP since its formation in 1980.

With the Congress, Communists, and the regional parties retaining their hold over AP, TN, Karnataka, and Kerala, there was little scope for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to show any electoral gains. The Naxal uprising in Andhra that was firmly entrenched in the state from the 1960s was another reason the RSS could not create a Hindu religious base despite the 17th century Rama temple in Bhadrachalam, the second most visited Rama temple site in India.

In fact, no temple movement has ever translated into a political victory for the BJP in Kerala or elsewhere in the South, TM Thomas Issac, former finance minister of Kerala reckons. “The BJP’s attempt to polarise Kerala peaked in 2019 when the party used Sabarimala issue after the Supreme Court verdict. However, in the ensuing elections in 2021, even the lone BJP MLA could not retain his seat.”

The former minister from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government said that post 2019, the Hindu community in Kerala are highly secular having been ruled by the Congress and Communists alternately for more than six decades.

“With a 98% literacy rate, no Keraliite will ever allow religion to penetrate politics. More so, Hindi was never an influencing language and even today, while the BJP distributes prasadam everywhere, Malayalam newspapers hardly report much on the current goings-on in Ayodhya.”

Muralidhar Halappa, Congress general secretary and spokesperson, Karnataka Congress said, “All the states were ruled by the Opposition all along. So, there will not be as much of a wave as expected even with the main Rama idol being carved by a sculptor from Mysuru and the seer from Pejawar (Udupi) Vishwaprasanna Tirtha being the sole seer from southern India in the 15-member Sri Rama Janmabhoomi Trust,” Halappa said.

Tamil Nadu’s strong stand

The strongest opposition to the ideology of Sanatana dharma emerged from Tamil Nadu in the form of the Dravidian ideology that denounced anything remotely religious. Many believers decry demonising Ravan, whom they believe to be Dravidian. In fact, the acerbic comments of Udayanidhi Stalin against Sanatana Dharma can be traced to his grandfather and a flag-bearer of Dravidianism, M Karunanidhi, who questioned the historical validity of an epic that "depicted Ravana as a villain".

Suresh Varghese, a political commentator said, “While one ‘Ganga aarti’ by PM Modi is enough to send the message home in northern India, the electorate in southern India has economic and other regional issues in mind while voting.”

A case in point would also be both Telangana and Karnataka electing Congress governments in 2023 after the party aggressively pushed welfare schemes. The BJP, on the other hand, also promised free train travel to Ayodhya in TS and developed a campaign around Lord Hanuman in Karnataka.

Looking at the 2024 Lok Sabha election

However, to say that the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple movement would have no impact at all during the 2024 elections in the five states would be putting the cart before the horse.

Balachandran, a West Bengal cadre retired IAS officer hailing from Tamil Nadu who has traced the Ram Janmabhoomi movement from 1984 said, “There may be an impact in terms of the vote share increasing by a percentage or two. Telangana and Karnataka have some BJP presence and Tamil Nadu and Kerala have the orthodox Hindus and Vaishnaviite sects to count on. Even a one percentage increase in each of these states meaning an increase of 4-5% would help the BJP cross the 50% mark the party has set for itself in 2024.”

Dr Rao, however, believes that “Modi’s popularity transcends Rama’s” in the southern states as a leader who “delivers on his promises and that could be the real moment of catharsis leading to some electoral gains.”

All theories will be put to the test within months. Both Rama and Krishna are not just gods from the Hindu pantheon who are adored but they are also important civilisational figures that have integrated the country from Ayodhya in UP to Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and Dwaraka in Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh in the East. They may or may not choose to bless the political parties with handsome wins, but they will continue to be worshipped not just in India but across and beyond the Subcontinent.

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