Ram mandir: A double-edged weapon for BJP’s poll plans


RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s call to the government to pass a law or promulgate an ordinance to build a Ram mandir in Ayodhya is a clear message of intent.

But, politically, it’s still a fair distance away from redefining the contours on which the 2019 general elections will be fought. However, it does lay the basis for BJP to seize the initiative. Which is why it’s important to assess the political relevance and utility of the Ram mandir issue, especially three decades after a former prime minister dug it out to revive his sagging political fortunes. He failed.

In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi launched his campaign from Faizabad, the district headquarters of Ayodhya.

He promised ‘Ram rajya’ and even allowed for a shilanyas (laying of the foundation stone) at a supposedly uncontested piece of land near the disputed area just ahead of the polls. Vishwa Hindu Parishad arranged for the bricks while BJP, with just two parliamentarians, sought to claim victory of its agenda.

The plan backfired. Congress, which had won 82 of the 85 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, won only 15 in 1989. BJP won eight seats in UP while Janata Dal won 54. BJP, however, made significant gains in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra to take its national tally from two to 85.

Afew important lessons emerged from here. The Mandal Commission, which redefined caste politics, trumped over Mandir and religion in UP and Bihar. But also importantly, the Ram mandir issue proved to have a larger catchment area beyond the Hindi heartland. This overlapped RSS’s traditional area of influence in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

And last but the not the least, bigticket corruption narratives like Bofors did have traction.

Unique issue

In fact, this was a watershed election because it provided the template for every party in opposition thereon to build its campaign with varying degrees of success. The terms keep changing depending on what’s on the boil, be it reservation or corruption scandals. But the mandir issue is unique to BJP.

No mainstream party dared to touch it for political gains after Rajiv Gandhi’s failed bid. Barring Shiv Sena, even BJP’s allies like Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) are uncomfortable with it. BJP’s first PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had a coalition to run. So he put the temple issue on the backburner.

Moreover, the probe into the demolition of the Babri masjid meant many leading lights within BJP had to tread cautiously, and go slow.

But now, the ‘new’ BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is in power in the Centre and in UP with a handsome majority. The only thing in the way, as BJP hardliners say, is a pending appeal in the Supreme Court.

So, there’s every reason for BJP to seize the moment. Except, how will it gain traction in an election where counter-polarisation is the party’s biggest threat? BJP’s adversaries are trying to combine in a way that all anti-BJP votes consolidate behind a united Opposition, which they figure is the only way to defeat the party.

In that sense, Ram mandir is a double-edged weapon. It’s largely seen as an upper caste brahmin-thakur issue in the heartland. Incremental tokenism, of the kind Rajiv Gandhi showed, failed to detract voters from the upheaval in caste politics.

Lesson learnt

BJP learnt that lesson and responded with LK Advani’s rath yatra.

But, frankly, it took as something as disruptive as the demolition of the mosque for the temple issue to break its upper caste confines and symbolise a pan-Hindu narrative.

So, there is no half-way house for BJP on the Ram mandir issue. A law through ordinance, as suggested by Bhagwat, followed by concrete action on the ground regardless of what the Supreme Court does or doesn’t, could well provide that disruptive moment to the party. The problem, however, will be on the governance front. Being in power, PM Modi will have to take a call—somewhat like the demonetisation decision—but with far greater imponderables as plausible and dangerous consequences.

Even in the hypothetical situation of the apex court allowing for the implementation of the Allahabad High Court order, the governments in Delhi and Lucknow will have to implement it. The ongoing Sabarimala protests are good example of how difficult it may get to implement sensitive court orders.

And if the government moves in defiance of the Supreme Court, the challenges on the ground will get tougher.

The easier way out is to hope the court pushes the issue further down the line and beyond the polls.

GoI will be spared a difficult situation, but as a party, BJP will not be able to exploit the political potential of the issue. Instead, mere statements will keep underlining the ‘upper caste, brahminical’ aspect of the subject, which could prove counterproductive and draw lower castes into the anti-BJP narrative.

Either way, this may turn into a ‘big decision’ moment for the BJP leadership, one which will be greatly influenced by how the party fares in the coming state elections. After all, some of these states form a significant part of the temple movement’s political catchment area.


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