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Ram temple at Ayodhya: Hindutva organisations on the back-foot

Having raised the controversial Ram Temple issue to fever-pitch, suddenly the temple agitation has been ‘postponed’ till after the elections by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Ostensibly the VHP does not want the Ram Temple to become a ‘petty election issue’.

This seems to defy logic because the Ram Temple issue has always been raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in election season in the hope that by polarising the electorate, it will encourage the majority community to line up behind the party.

This time also, Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have made public statements on temple construction barely months before the general election is due. Shah went to the extent of promising that construction would begin at Ayodhya before the general election.

The government’s efforts to get a Supreme Court judgment on the disputed site in Ayodhya before September 2018 came to naught. It also considered bringing in an ordinance to enable temple construction. Finally it has chosen to file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking permission to return to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas land adjoining the disputed site that had been acquired by the governmnet under court orders. If successful, it would enable the Nyas to begin temple construction on the undisputed land surrounding the disputed portion and provide the BJP with a face-saver.

Meanwhile, a social media campaign was unleashed by the party to build sentiment in favour of temple construction. The VHP fell in line and organised dharma sabhas (religious meetings) across the country culminating in a ‘Dharma Sansad’ (self-styled Religious Parliament) on the occasion of the Ardh-Kumbh demanding temple construction.

Then why, virtually on the eve of the general election, have the Modi-Shah duo and social media activists employed by the BJP fallen silent?

A view of Ramlila Maidan during Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) event ‘Dharma Sabha’, in which thousands of people gathered to press for the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya in New Delhi | File photo- Dalip Kumar

The turning point perhaps was RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech at the Dharma Sansad.  He was repeatedly interrupted by sadhus demanding he announce a specific date for beginning temple construction, and he was at a loss to do so. The consequences of not delivering on promises of temple construction before the elections must have struck the RSS chief sharply. If the BJP lost the coming election it would signal a loss of credibility and legitimacy within their Hindu constituency both for the party and the RSS. 

Having read the tea-leaves, the RSS may also want to prepare for a post-poll scenario where the BJP, may fail to secure full majority. Prime Minister Modi himself has let slip as much in his speech to Parliament, where he seemed to suggest that the general election would result in an alliance government of the Opposition, which he contemptuously described as a “maha-milawat” or a mixture of contaminants. 

The RSS leadership may be somewhat disenchanted by the Modi-Shah duo but prospects of the BJP losing power are frightening for the organisation. It needs to protect not only the vast resources it has accumulated under the Modi regime but also the political and social reach it has gained by penetration and control of state institutions, universities, think-tanks, media, research funding bodies, etc. With Rahul Gandhi promising to purge all institutions of RSS sympathisers and supporters if the Opposition comes to power, the future  is threatened for the RSS just when it is getting used to controlling the levers of institutional power.

The  RSS understands that cobbling together a BJP-led coalition has to be its first priority even if that requires putting the temple agenda on the backburner.

Political pundits are in fact suggesting that the RSS is looking out for a more ‘moderate’ face who could perhaps lead such a coalition. Prime Minister Modi does not have a reconciliatory persona. He is seen as being authoritarian and a bully. There have been suggestions that Nitin Gadkari may be the man of the moment for the RSS.

Many claim that Gadkari’s political double-entendres against the political style of Modi and Shah are made with a wink and nod from the RSS. There are other possibilities too for the new national face of the BJP. A popular leader like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is being persuaded to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Guna in Madhya Pradesh, could as well fill the shoes of the BJP prime ministerial candidate should a the need for a coalition arise. 

In an uncertain political environment the best case scenario for the RSS would be to have a moderate BJP leader at the head of a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government – someone who could not only hold the present allies together but also expand their number after the polls. Raising the Ram Temple tempo before the elections would reduce negotiating room with future allies.

The BJP is already facing erosion in the NDA ranks. The Telugu Desam Party, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and the Asom Gana Parishad have left the alliance and others in the north-east are straining at the leash over the Citizenship Amendment Bill.  Even the BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has one foot out of the NDA door. At a time like this, the BJP cannot afford to show a red rag to its allies by forcing a confrontation over the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Already, NDA partners like the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) have publicly distanced themselves from the demand for temple-construction.

Post-poll allies potentially include the Telangana Rajya Samithi, YSR Congress and the Biju Janata Dal. If the BJP tires to polarise the voters for its immediate benefit by forcibly breaking ground in Ayodhya to construct a temple, these parties may not join a BJP-led government after the elections.

So for the time being the BJP and the RSS will have to keep the Ram Temple confined to the courts.

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