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Political karma comes full circle for BJP as it returns to Hindutva

Miffed at the Supreme Court according low priority to hearings on the Ayodhya land dispute case, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has threatened to launch a 1992-like agitation for the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. The 1992 agitation began with a rath yatra by Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani which left a trail of communal riots in its wake.

Claiming that it respects judicial processes, the RSS has nevertheless urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its priority on the “sensitive issue” as Hindus in the country felt “insulted”.

Emotive religious issues are returning centerstage for the RSS and its political front, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the general election approaches. However, little seems to be going right for the Hindutva agenda.

Central to the Hindutva agenda are: the construction of a Ram Temple at the site of the destroyed Babri Mosque; abolishing the special status of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state and privileges granted to its residents under Article 370 and 35A, and implementing a uniform civil code. To these have been added the issue of allowing women of menstruating age entry into the Ayappa shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala.

The most emotive of these is the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya. Those in power must have hoped that a pliant judiciary would deliver a quick verdict on the land dispute, leaving them some months before the general elections to begin construction at the site. However, the Supreme Court has postponed the hearing to January next year despite the pleas of the Uttar Pradesh government. The court’s verdict is unlikely to be out before the general elections putting paid to hopes of temple construction during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s current tenure.

A frustrated BJP and its mother organisation are asking the government to bring an ordinance for land acquisition at the site or bring a Bill in Parliament to facilitate temple construction. However, as long as the land ownership is not resolved by the Supreme Court neither an ordinance not a Parliamentary Bill will allow temple building to start. A Bill will only be a symbolic reiteration of the BJP’s resolve and serve at best to brand the Opposition as ‘anti-Hindu’.

People lighting earthen lamps on banks of River Saryu during Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya

In South India, the religious issue of the moment is the removal of restrictions on the entry of women worshippers into the Sabrimala temple. The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of gender equality over misogynous interpretation of “Hindu faith”. Initially the BJP welcomed the Supreme Court’s judgement. It is a position supported by the RSS since 2006. However, the BJP’s central leadership had to backtrack when its state unit in Kerala revolted against the apex court’s ruling. Meanwhile the Congress party in Kerala opposed the verdict and gained a head start over the BJP on the issue. 

The core constituency of the BJP is also upset that the government has not opposed the Supreme Court order curbing Diwali celebrations by imposing a two hour limit on lighting firecrackers. Well-worn Hindutva arguments are circulating once again that while celebration of Muslim festivals like Eid and Christian festivals like Christmas are not interfered with, Hindu festivals are always being subjected to restrictions. It is all the more galling that this is happening under a ‘Hindutva’ government.

The revoking of the special Constitutional status of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir has always been central to Hindutva conceptions of national unity encapsulated in Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s slogan, “chalenge". Literally, A single country cannot have two Constitutions, two Prime Ministers and two emblems. (At the time the Chief Minsiter of J&K was also called Prime Minsiter).

Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allows J&K certain degree of autonomy within the Indian Union. Its provisions have been considerably reduced by a series of Presidential ordinances. Now the attempt is to challenge the constitutional validity of Article 35A in the Supreme Court, which empowers the J&K legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state who are entitled to special rights and privileges.

Although the Modi government did not itself institute the legal case, it did not file an affidavit in support of the Constitutional provision, even though previous governments had done so on two earlier occasions. The issue of Article 35A is unlikely to be resolved soon as the issue evokes strong local sentiments. Hearings were postponed to January next year at the instance of the Attorney General himself citing potential law and order problems as local body and panchayat elections were due in the state. That was at the end of August.

The political situation is unlikely to become any more conducive to resuming hearings on Article 35A by January 2019. Governor’s rule imposed on the state on June 20 this year will come to an end in December. In every possible scenario that follows, the law and order situation in J&K will only deteriorate should hearings resume without the government taking a stand against its abrogation.

The failure of the government in implementing a uniform civil code is all too apparent. Going to the polls with the ban on instant triple-talaq as its only ‘achievement’ will neither fetch it substantial votes among Muslim women nor among Hindus.

Under these circumstances, the options before the BJP and Prime Minister Modi are limited. Job creation cannot take a quantum jump in the short time remaining before the general election. Nor does setting up imposing statues translate into votes, as the experience of former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, demonstrates.

It may be that the Modi phenomenon is about to come full circle. Arthur C Brooks, president of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, recently said in Chennai: “Once every 50 years there is a financial crisis in which we have a populist leader. Usually, within five years, the populist leader becomes incredibly ineffective and unpopular and we go back to status quo.” Brooks was talking of his own country of course, but might his observations be relevant about populist leaders elsewhere?

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