Temple entry marks a new era in politics | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Temple entry marks a new era in politics

Jan 20, 2024 07:18 AM IST

With the Ram Temple, the BJP has a clear agenda and PM Modi’s charisma to pull together a rainbow Hindu coalition. The Opposition’s response is still forming.

Winter mornings in Lucknow are often forlorn. Dew-lined streets hum with the gentle patter of walkers, the occasional screech of an auto or bus shattering the calm. Yet as Suresh Kumar scampered up the road to the imposing gates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office one cold morning last week, things were anything but calm. Hundreds of party workers were already there, waiting to be let in. Kumar and the others shuffled into a familiar rectangular room, its walls papered with white motifs of seasonal flowers. There, they were briefed on the elaborate plan that the party had drawn up to reach out to voters in the run-up to the opening of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. For around four hours, Kumar took notes as office bearers sketched the city out, giving each worker areas to cover on foot.

People at the premises of a temple, next to the cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Lord Ram in Ayodhya. (REUTERS)
People at the premises of a temple, next to the cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Lord Ram in Ayodhya. (REUTERS)

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The next morning, Kumar got cracking. Leaving his house in Lucknow’s cramped Aliganj area at the crack of dawn, he spent the morning with a group of 30 workers, distributing akshat (uncooked rice offered to the deity) to 600 households in the neighbourhood. An e-rickshaw carrying bagfuls of akshat followed them. A saffron scarf draped around his neck, Kumar knocked on each door, greeted the residents with the customary Jai Shri Ram and then handed them a handful of akshat grain, a photograph of the temple and a pamphlet requesting them to visit Ayodhya after the consecration ceremony.

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“The response was ecstatic, many people even came out of their house to receive the invitation,” said Kumar, who runs a small provisions store. “I have urged my wife to manage the store till January 22. I’ll be out till late,” he said. The men are on a regimen – they have to be on the road between 8am and 2pm, take a break for lunch, and then hit the pavement again between 4 pm to 6 pm. By nightfall, they would have spoken to 400 households, establishing a preliminary relationship that could be built on, come the general elections this summer.

At around the same time, deeper in the hinterland, the furrows on Suresh Bharati’s forehead were getting deeper. The 40-year-old had been kicking up dust on the dirt tracks that link the villages ringfencing Bikapur, roughly 25km from the bustle of the temple site in Ayodhya.

He spent the morning visiting Dalit households, urging people to donate money to install a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar. “He is our icon, so we have decided to replace the old statues with new ones before the polls,” said Bharati.

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It’s a tested mobilisation technique – the writing and legacy of India’s first law minister remains a potent symbol, especially for India’s Dalit communities that have an emotive, personal relationship with him. In the 1980s, collective funding and community building was the way in which Kanshi Ram built the BSP, village by village, one cycle trip after another.

Yet, this time, the challenge is decidedly stiffer. In almost every house that Bharati went, he was told about a BJP worker who had been there earlier, to invite them to visit the Ram Temple and exhort them to be a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to every household to light an earthen lamp on January 22. “ It’s a strategy of the BJP to saffronise the Dalit community and to win their support,” Bharati said.

BJP workers also reminded villagers of the free ration they got from the government and the bouquet of welfare schemes on offer. “The welfarism of Modi -- free ration, free power, health scheme and cooking gas – has opened the door to the BJP to make inroads in our village. And now, they’re talking about Ram,” said Ishwarchand Kori, a resident of Masuadha .

Bharati is determined to stave off this inroad; he has asked his workers to fan out into the village, hold meetings in chowks to remind people of the BSP’s emancipation programmes between 2007 and 2012. But he is outgunned in this battle – he has fewer workers, who have less resources backing them and not enough ammunition to dispel the myth-tinged narrative of the Ram Temple.

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It is the contrast between these two moments that is shaping the political dynamics ahead of the opening of the Ram Temple, pivotal not only for what it signals to millions of Hindus but also for the potential political ramifications on the summer’s general elections. On one side is the BJP, exulting in the fulfilment of what it calls a civilisational moment and a core promise of its electoral manifesto for three decades. It has announced a programme that hopes to touch 500 million people.

On the other side is the 28-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which appears to be coalescing around a strategy of skipping the January 22nd ceremony. The Hindi belt parties have adopted a more nuanced approach, welcoming the temple but opposing the overt association of the PM with the consecration. Others, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the Trinamool Congress, ruling provinces where the impact of Mandir politics has historically been slight, have taken a more strident position. Yet, despite the presence of some powerful satraps in its tent, the strategy is largely scattershot and lacking, at least till now, a cogent narrative. At stake also are larger questions about the place of religion in politics, and whether this moment emboldens majoritarianism among sections of the people.

Temple politics

The modern saga of politics around the Ram Janmabhoomi movement began a year after independence, when 13 members of the Socialist Party, led by Ram Manohar Lohia, resigned from the Uttar Pradesh assembly in protest against the Congress’s policies. One of the seats where bypolls were announced was Faizabad. When elections were announced for June that year, the country was still numb from the shock of the Mahatma’s assassination, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was banned, and many key characters of the temple movement were still fringe players. But the lead was taken by the then Uttar Pradesh CM Govind Ballabh Pant who was determined to see the end of his bitter rival, Acharya Narendra Dev.

The Congress replaced its incumbent candidate in Faizabad with Baba Raghav Das, an ascetic from eastern UP (the medical college in Gorakhpur is named after him) who appealed to the Hindus in Ayodhya and repeatedly pointed out that Dev was an atheist despite being from the city of Ram. “In the course of the by-election, Baba Raghav Das realised the strength of Hindu communalists and vairagis in Ayodhya …Shortly afterwards, he went as far as to support those who demanded that the Babri Masjid be handed over to Hindus,” wrote Dhirendra K Jha and Krishna Jha in Ayodhya: The Dark Night. In a shock result, Das won by 1,312 votes.

At 4am on December 23, 1949, idols of the infant god Ram, or Ram Lalla, were reported under the central dome of the Babri Masjid. The incident – called a miracle by Hindu devotees and a deliberate act of sabotage by Muslim petitioners – cemented Hindu claims over the entire 16th-century building. It also widened rifts between the conservative and the socialist factions within the Congress. This much was clear in the letters exchanged between Nehru, who repeatedly pushed for the removal of the idols, and Pant, who dithered.

By the end of 1949, Das and some other Congressmen were sharing platforms calling for the “reclaiming” of Ram Janmabhoomi with Hindu Mahasabha leaders. Alongside, militant ascetic Karpatri Maharaj had formed his own Ram Rajya Parishad. Both parties fought India’s first elections on a platform of liberating Hindus and the birthplace of Ram, but couldn’t make a significant mark in UP. The only candidate from either party who won in the state was Shakuntala Nair, wife of the district magistrate KK Nair who refused to remove the idols from the Babri Masjid.

The Congress swept Faizabad district, and when Pant was called to Delhi to join the Union cabinet in 1954, the strength of the conservative faction atrophied. Though the Nair couple would both make it to Parliament, by the close of the 1950s, the frenzy had ebbed.

The second phase arguably began with Faizabad judge KM Pandey’s order in 1986 asking for the locks of the Masjid to be opened. Just two years earlier, the VHP had given the call to intensify the movements in Varanasi, Mathura and Ayodhya, but the Rajiv Gandhi government’s flatfooted moves opened up opportunities. “It was countering the proliferation of identity politics, not with high-minded liberalism, but by pandering to extremism. And it was this Congress party that was directing L.K. Advani’s new course of action,” wrote the historian Vinay Sitapati in Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi.

As president of the still-fledgling BJP, LK Advani made the Ram temple a core issue. It paid immediate dividends – the party jumped to 89 seats in the 1989 elections, from two in 1984. The next year, Advani announced a 10,000km rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya. The march proved controversial and sparked several clashes, but also helped the BJP’s message seep through the countryside. His arrest in Bihar in 1990 and the Mulayam Singh Yadav government’s decision to fire on kar sevaks that autumn only strengthened the BJP’s hand. In the 1991 elections, the BJP won 120 seats and in Uttar Pradesh, it won its first simple majority under mandir movement proponent Kalyan Singh.

The next year, Babri Masjid was razed, triggering a deadly wave of riots and condemnation. Kalyan Singh’s government was dismissed. And a countercurrent of mobilisation around the Mandal Commission report – which galvanised the lower castes around the wider question of constitutional rights – undercut the BJP’s momentum in the heartland. Even as the BJP gained strength across the country, building on the appeal of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the temple’s appeal in UP waned. The temple played a limited role even in the BJP’s triumph in the state in 2017 and 2022.

Now, the third phase is set to begin on January 22, with one man at its centre – PM Narendra Modi.

Modi’s appeal

Just off Matgajendra chowk in the heart of Ayodhya, two tracks branch off into the wilderness, a mesh of cables hanging from the crumbling parapets making tall pedestrians duck. It’s a route Rohit Kumar takes every day.

The 23-year-old college graduate is unemployed, but in high spirits. Along with three of his friends from the neighbourhoods, he offers tourists a bouquet tour of temples in the city for 500; the pickings are slim but Rohit is certain business will pick up once the temple opens. He is the first to admit that he wasn’t very religious growing up, but the PM has changed his outlook.

“I realised how important Hindutva is; I never listened to any of the gurus that my mother dragged me to, but what Modi says makes sense. That’s why he’s the leader of Hindus,” he said, pointing excitedly to the swarm of life-size cutouts of the PM that now line every major thoroughfare of Ayodhya, sharing space only with replicas of Lord Ram. “And he deserves that, because he’s the one who’s given our god a home.”

In the eyes of many like Rohit, Modi embodies the resurgence of Hindu faith that has given young people like him something to be proud of. “There is no bigger fan of Modi than my mother,” he said. “She never followed any political leader, and only believed in gurujis. But with Modi, she says she has astha (faith).”

No previous leader has come to epitomise the joint appeal of religion and politics like Modi has. In that sense, the political project of Hindutva has a modern edge, contrasting it from the more orthodox schools of Hinduism that would baulk at accepting lower-caste entrants such as Yadav into its fold before. The clash between the more traditional schools of thought and the modern political project of Hindutva was made starker this week with a number of Shankaracharyas, the leaders of the four nodes of Hindu faith, making clear their displeasure with the mode and minutiae of the inauguration ceremony. Though two of them later clarified that they were not opposed to the event, and the VHP appeared to have smoothened things over, the fault lines were apparent.

In projecting Modi as not just a charismatic political leader but also a spiritual figure, a leaf has been taken out of the BJP’s extraordinary expansion over the last decade, built on cleaving chunks of votes from the Dalit, backward and adivasi communities to add to its solid bloc of upper and middle caste supporters, its core base. People such as Rohit and his family are part of this new group of BJP backers, drawn as much by welfare push and majoritarian impulses as by Modi’s personality. It is the latter, in fact, that has been able to smoothen over the grassroots tensions inevitable in a social coalition of extremes.

The BJP is hoping to now add Ram temple as the glue to bind this coalition. The party has been careful to start its akshat programme from a Valmiki (Dalit) colony in Ayodhya, and has played up the fact that temples to Valmiki, Shabri and Nishadraj – all figures in the Ramayana from marginalised communities who are held in deep reverence by millions.

“The idols of Valmiki, Shabri and Nishadraj are being installed in the Ram temple to send a message that it’s a temple to unite all the castes,” said Sharad Sharma, VHP spokesperson.

Bajrang Dal leader Rajesh Singh said volunteers were asked to organise special recitation of Hanuman Chalisa and puja in all the temples. “After the consecration, pilgrims will arrive by special trains from the 543 constituencies and we will organise community feasts,” he said.

The BJP is also handing out booklets to tens of thousands, and will put up temporary screens at public places across India for live telecast of the ceremony. The party has pressed into action ministers to clean temples. Special attention is being paid to bring marginalised castes into the fold. “Cutting across caste lines, people will be encouraged to undertake campaigns in small and large temples,” said UP deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya.

And finally, a post-January 22 Ram Darshan plan will see the party facilitating the visits of up to 20 million pilgrims till March, a move aimed at ensuring that the temple inauguration resonates with the masses till the April-May polls. The goal is common – tell everyone that a core promise of the BJP has been delivered.

The counter

The INDIA bloc also has a common goal – to dissociate the temple (to which almost none of them seem to have any direct opposition, save the Left) from the BJP and Modi . The hope is that like earlier phases of the temple movement, the frenzy will ebb and everyday social fault lines, such as that of caste and class, will take precedence again. But the road to achieve this appears hazy – and was reflected in the initial confusion in their response to the temple invitations.

In Ayodhya district, for example, the Samajwadi Party (SP) did well in the 2022 assembly elections despite a historic BJP victory in the rest of the state. It won two of the five seats. “We are strengthening the organisation by connecting young people with booth-level committees. We are raising public issues, including unemployment, law and order, security of women, price rise and poverty,” said district unit chief Parasnath Yadav.

But the party is careful to underline its Hindu credentials. “The BJP is trying to project SP as a villain, highlighting the police firing on kar sevaks in 1990. To counter this, we are saying the firing was ordered to protect the Constitution and the country,” said general secretary Jai Shankar Pande.

The BSP, looking at an existential battle in 2024, is opting for a different tack – using the personality of Dr Ambedkar and his writing to cut through the BJP’s Hindu pitch.

“The ideals of Dr Ambedkar united the Dalits . We want to build his statues in villages because they are rallying points for Dalits and backwards. Ambedkar statues also sent a signal to rival parties,” said Bharati. The party is also hosting cadre camps in villages to stop young men from joining the BJP’s pilgrim groups to the temple. “The view of the BSP supporters is clear – Ram temple is a symbol of faith whereas their vote is for the formation of the government,” said state unit chief Vishwanath Pal.

Such programmes hold resonance among the core supporters of these parties. Savita Devi in Nazirpur is clear that the BSP government emancipated Dalit women like her, and the BJP regime only gave them ration, with little political clout. Rampher Rawat, another local resident, is certain that Ram temple is not going to be a swing electoral issue. And in Dhamar, Shiv Sagar Yadav is more circumspect. He said a large number of villagers are going to the Ram temple but added that caste loyalties will ensure that not all of them will vote for the BJP.

But beyond these constituents, the lack of a cogent narrative is clear. “The main opposition parties are fighting to protect their base from saffronisation. But they will have to re-energise their ground strategy,” said political expert VK Sharma.

In this melee, the happiest are the kar sevaks, the foot soldiers of the temple movement. Laying down in his shocking pink room, Prakash Nag is a content man. “For many years, no one remembered our contribution, they maligned us; but we had belief. Now, I’ll take my son to go to the Ram Temple, a proud man,” said Nag, who lost an eye in the 1990 police firing.

But their rehabilitation has left a bitter taste among many Muslims, who believe this holds a portent for majoritarianism. “We are weak, and have little power. All we want is peace,” said Haji Mahboob, one of the title suit litigants.

Beyond electoral politics and the immediate concerns of 2024, the position of faith in Indian politics is also entering a new era.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajesh Kumar Singh is Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times at the political bureau in Lucknow. Along with covering politics, he covers government departments. He also travels to write human interest and investigative stories.

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