The temple and its politics, for the ruling BJP and the Opposition parties - Hindustan Times
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Terms of Trade | The temple and its politics, for the ruling BJP and the Opposition parties

Jan 23, 2024 06:39 PM IST

Why does the Opposition remain in an unclear ideological position vis-à-vis the inauguration of the Ram temple?

In politics, there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is believed to have said. December 6, 1992, and January 22, 2024, are two dates in the history of modern India that perfectly fit this description. The demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya by a mob of kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, and the inauguration of the newly-built Ram temple scheduled on January 22 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi are two points in time which capture a tectonic shift of India’s politics in the last three decades.

A construction crew works on Ram Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram in Ayodhya. (AP) PREMIUM
A construction crew works on Ram Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram in Ayodhya. (AP)

In 1992, the Sangh Parivar – a term used to describe the universe of the Hindu Right organisations under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – took a huge risk by committing/facilitating an act which was not only criminal but also widely condemned by almost the entire political and intellectual ecosystem outside its own camp at that time. The entity which faced the biggest risk was its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had just managed to establish itself as India’s main Opposition party in the 1991 elections but was still significantly behind the Congress and even further from capturing power.

The immediate aftermath of the demolition suggested that the RSS and its fellow travellers had indeed erred in bringing down the mosque. The BJP lost the election in Uttar Pradesh despite increasing its vote share. It was defeated by a coming together of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party which represented the socially backward majority among the Hindus. It also faced large-scale political ostracization at the national level and could not find enough allies to form a stable government despite ending up as the single largest party in both the 1996 and 1998 elections. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP’s most important political face who would go on to become the first non-Congress prime minister to serve a full term, was either genuinely a moderate who did not like what had transpired on December 6, 1992, or had to pretend to be one, lest the allies needed to retain power walked away. Hard-core Hindutva issues were put in cold storage for his government to last. Even this tactical realignment failed to work in the 2004 elections when the BJP suffered a shock defeat. The drubbing in the 2009 polls only worsened this political crisis of the BJP.

Fast forward 15 years

Today’s BJP is as far as things can be from the situation described above. It won back-to-back majorities in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and could very well repeat this feat in 2024 unless things change drastically in the next couple of months. Narendra Modi, the BJP’s biggest leader today, is anything but a moderate like Vajpayee. He does not let go of any opportunity to highlight his Hindu credentials and politics. Unlike during Vajpayee’s government, a lot of the core Hindutva issues of the BJP have already been achieved under the Modi government. It could very well push the envelope on this front in the days to come.

Modi’s inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is probably the biggest but it is neither the first nor the last in the list of acts that brandish the Hindu optics of Modi and the BJP.

What links today’s BJP with the BJP of 1992? The Ram temple was the proverbial life-saving steroid for the BJP after its predecessor Jan Sangh walked out of the failed Janata Party experiment. It had won just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. This number went up to 89 after the BJP decided to take up the Ayodhya issue.

To be sure, this steroid alone does not explain the growth of the BJP into the political behemoth that it is today. Part of the BJP’s success story is the result of the political hara-kiri during the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government including severe economic mismanagement and the ugly optics of corruption. The top leadership of the Congress must take the blame for this.

Part of it is the degeneration of the so-called Mandal parties which led to their complete failure in protecting the ideals they claimed to be vanguards of. The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in Samajwadi Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh and the political tailwinds it generated for the BJP’s 2014 campaign are the biggest examples on this count. Last but not least, a large part of the BJP’s present hegemony must be attributed to Narendra Modi’s investment and political weaponization of the government’s welfare delivery. Hindutva of course remains as the ideological core.

A note on the Opposition

Could the opposition have done anything differently to prevent the BJP from reaping the benefits of the Ram temple issue, first in the pre-1992 period and now? Multiple points can be made to answer this question.

The first is the failure of the opposition to evolve ideological clarity. This is pretty evident from the statement issued by the Congress leadership refusing the invitation to the inauguration. The grounds for not accepting the invite are the BJP making a “political project of the temple in Ayodhya” and “inauguration of the incomplete temple” which has “obviously been brought forward for electoral gain”.

Subsequent statements by Congress leaders have been quoting Hindu religious figures who have raised religious objections to the event. The Congress needs to think whether it will henceforth agree with everything these religious leaders think. By doing this, is the Congress doing exactly what it is accusing the BJP of, namely, mixing religion with politics?

In fact, mixing religion with politics is a sin the Congress and the secular camp at large have committed multiple times during the Ayodhya saga.

Eminent lawyer and political commentator A G Noorani — nobody will describe him as a pro-BJP figure — has made this argument in the introduction of his book The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record.

“When the Babri Masjid question arose in February 1986 the Muslim community seethed with resentment at the gross injustice it had suffered, dimly aware of the games that were being played out in secret. Muslim politicians chose mindlessly to pursue the course on which they had embarked since 1948—mobilisation of Muslims ‘to assert Muslims’ rights; ventilation of Muslims’ grievances, agitation for Muslims’ protection against wrongs…In truth, every wrong, every act of injustice done to a Muslim—or for that matter, any other citizen—is an Indian lapse from Indian ideals, for Indians to set right, cutting across the religious divide.”

The strategy of mobilising Muslims to take on the Ayodhya movement directly fed into the BJP’s ambitions of polarising Hindus for the Ram temple issue by portraying Muslims as villains. The 1989 Palampur resolution of the BJP — this is the document which adopted the Ayodhya issue as a political task for the BJP — is proof of this.

“The Muslim League lobby in the country had acquired a new militancy and aggressiveness. The campaign launched by this lobby against the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano Case in 1985 had brought it rich dividends. A panic-stricken Government had amended the criminal law; the Supreme Court judgement was legislatively annulled. Having thus tasted blood, this lobby set up the Babri Masjid Action Committee, mounted a vicious assault on the decisions of the Faizabad Court, and went to the lengths of boycotting Republic Day celebrations in protest against these orders. A rally organised by this lobby in front of Parliament House actually held out threats of violence unless these orders were reversed. It is significant that most of the members of the Babri Masjid Action Committee belonged to the Congress”, it stated.

The Congress and other secular parties’ complicity with a shrill, often communal, Muslim consolidation (which was music to the BJP’s ears) in the realm of the political was accompanied by an overreliance on left-liberal historians in the realm of the intellectual. These historians evoked their scholarship to argue that there was no conclusive proof of the mosque standing on top of a demolished temple. The problem with this approach was not the merit or demerit of the argument per se but its political naivety.

The best critique of this approach came from Majid Hayat Siddiqi, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University who went against most of his colleagues by refusing to sign a statement questioning the historical veracity of the claims being made by the protagonists of the Ram temple movement.

“When ‘history’ is invoked by a group that encourages aggression against a minority, the role that historians could play in countering it would be as moral and political persons, not as historians. It is not for historians to ‘prove’ or disprove’ as right or wrong every instance of an assertion made by a political or cultural group as social winds this way and that. That would be allowing history to be used (and therefore abused) by sections of society as opposed to its being of value in society”, Siddiqui wrote explaining his dissent in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1990.

What was lacking in these two extremes of using shrill minority communalism (to fight majority communalism) with radical secular historiography was a sincere effort to make a moral-political intervention against communal frenzy and violence which Siddiqui wanted to be taken up as a political task. It is this lack of effort to mobilise such an opinion which has made it fait accompli for the opposition to maintain silence on the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 while talking about the temple today.

The criminality of the demolition is the only legitimate criticism one can make of the celebrations of the Ram temple’s inauguration at Ayodhya. It needs to be underlined that the Palampur resolution of the BJP was explicitly dismissive of the courts being able to adjudicate on this issue.

A Congress government failing to protect the Babri mosque from being demolished in 1992 and a beleaguered Congress leadership evoking Hindu religious leaders rather than the criminality of the act its party failed to prevent in 1992 are the proverbial tragedy and farce versions of Marx’s famous sentence of history repeating itself in the story of Indian secularism.

Defending secularism is not a battle which can be fought by being clever by half or making cynical vote-share calculations in a first-past-the-post system. It requires ideological clarity, sincerity, perseverance and most importantly, courage to accept past mistakes both internally and in public. Almost all of these traits are lacking in India’s Opposition.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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