The Central government’s project to develop a Ramayan Museum in Ayodhya, which became news days before Tuesday’s visit of Union Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma to the temple town, has reignited the politics over Ram Temple just a few months before the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections are to be announced. Sharma’s visit to Ayodhya, where he is also slated to pay a visit to the makeshift Ram temple at the disputed site of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid and meet Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders linked to the temple movement besides discussing the tourism development with locals, is unlikely to benefit the BJP in coming elections if it continues to see only the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
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As many surveys and the results of last several elections have suggested, the issue of constructing a Ram Temple has stopped resonating with the UP electorate. In 2009 when Lal Krishna Advani, one of the faces of Ram Mandir movement, was BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the party won only 10 seats in UP. In 2012 assembly elections, the Samajwadi Party for the first time won Ayodhya seat which had been with the BJP since 1991. It was an indication that BJP could not win Ayodhya, let alone UP, just by associating itself with the construction of Ram Temple.
Ayodhya was exploited politically for decades by political parties but was rarely given anything, though it is one of the most visited religious sites by domestic tourists in India with more than one crore Indians paying a visit every year. It still remains devoid of most of the basic facilities and development. As the BJP works to get Ayodhya, and UP, back from the SP, it will have to see more than just the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
The Centre’s project as well as those initiated by Akhilesh Yadav government for development of tourism in Ayodhya have been long in the pipeline and show the changing politics over the temple town. The opposition parties like the Congress and BSP have, however, linked them with UP elections.
But the BJP, as a prudent strategy, is likely to go ahead with its plans of development in Ayodhya which has remained devoid of tourism facilities and severely lacks in development work, one of the reasons why people shunned the BJP in 2012. Developing places of Hindu pilgrimage in Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi, like the cleaning of the Ganga, may not be as emotive an issue as the Ram temple, but it affirms the party’s dedication to the Hindu identity.
However, the opposition, as it has indicated, could also carry to excess its criticism of the Central government’s involvement in Ayodhya and may end up helping the BJP. While the BJP has a clear goal of consolidating Hindu votes for the next assembly elections, the parties like Congress find it difficult to handle such an issue as was evident from Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Ayodhya last month when he paid his first visit to the town but did not go to the makeshift temple at the disputed site which is claimed to be the birth place of Lord Ram.
The UP Cabinet’s decision on Monday to approve the use of red sandstone at an under-construction Ram Leela Theme Park also led to questions from BSP chief Mayawati who said the BJP and the SP are trying to link religion with politics before elections. For Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, the development of an international Ram Leela Centre, which will also include a Ram Leela Theme Park, gives an opportunity to showcase his party’s secular credentials and change the image of a radically pro-minority party which cost it in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The police firing on karsevaks in Ayodhya in 1990, when Mulayam Singh Yadav was chief minister, made him popular among Muslims in UP. But the popularity of Modi in UP has threatened the SP’s Hindu support base as was visible in Lok Sabha elections results. Since then, Akhilesh has tried to change that image with more focus on development. He has already inducted first-time MLA from Ayodhya, Pawan Pandey, as a minister in his government.