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After Babri Masjid demolition: Can the Ram Temple swing voters?

Ayodhya gave BJP its big issue. It has delivered to an extent, but it has had to compete with other narratives.

Written by Ravish Tiwari | New Delhi |
Updated: January 31, 2019 1:14:07 pm
Ayodhya, Ayodhya issue, BJP, LK advani, Lok sabha elections, Ayodhya land dispute case, babri masjid demolition, ayodhya non disputed land, Indian express Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra was a major turning point. (Express Archive)

Why has the BJP’s politics been traditionally linked to the politics of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya?

The BJP emerged from the Janata Party that defeated the Congress in the post-Emergency 1977 elections. Its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, had merged with the socialists, Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), and anti-Indira Congress factions in the Janata Party.

Jana Sangh members were the largest block (90 MPs) in the Janata Party that won 295 seats in Lok Sabha. The BLD (68) was next, followed by members of the Congress (O) (55), socialists (51), and Jagjivan Ram’s Congress for Democracy (25).

Indira Gandhi stormed back to power in the elections of 1980. Janata shrank to 31 seats, which included 16 Members associated earlier with the Jana Sangh. On Good Friday (April 4) 1980, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other members of the erstwhile Jana Sangh were expelled for their “dual membership” of both the RSS and the Janata Party. On Easter Sunday, (April 6) they resurrected themselves as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Under Vajpayee, the BJP’s philosophy was a kind of Gandhian Socialism. Its dismal showing in the elections of 1984 — it got just two seats, and Vajpayee himself lost — set the party rethinking. L K Advani steered the party with a narrative to counter the “pseudo-secularism” of the Congress. The BJP took on the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to enact a law to nullify the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shah Bano case. In 1985, the court had upheld Muslim women’s right to alimony, which was seen by the orthodoxy as interference in Muslim personal law.

Also read : In ancient region, Congress history vs modern BJP politics

Meanwhile, in 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an RSS affiliate, raised the demand for “freeing” what it called the “Ram Janmabhoomi” in Ayodhya. Having brought the Shah Bano law, Rajiv’s government, in an apparent balancing act, swung in the direction of the Hindu orthodoxy and, in February 1986, backed the unlocking of the gates of the Babri Masjid.

As the hardline Hindu clamour gained decibels, the BJP’s national conclave in Palampur in June 1989 adopted the resolution for the Ram Temple. Rajiv, searching for Hindu votes, allowed the VHP to do a shilanyas (foundation stone laying) ceremony in November 1989, just ahead of Lok Sabha elections.

So has the BJP benefitted politically from its identification with the Ram Temple movement?

In the elections that took place in the shadow of V P Singh’s allegations of kickbacks in the Bofors deal, the BJP shot to 86 seats riding on the Ram Temple sentiment. In the Assembly elections of 1990, it formed governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh.

The Ram Temple had given an issue to the BJP to build itself a future. It joined the communists to support V P Singh’s government from the outside. As the VHP continued to raise the pitch, BJP president Advani started out on a Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in September 1990.

Read: Disputed site suits on, government asks SC to free land next to it

Meanwhile, battling dissensions within the Janata Dal and pressure from Hindutva politics without, Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in August 1990. The Mandal-kamandal battlelines were drawn. Mandal champion Lalu Prasad Yadav arrested Advani in Bihar on October 23, 1990. The other Mandal Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, employed the full force of the administration against a potential VHP assault on the Babri Masjid. Some kar sevaks were killed in police firing in Ayodhya.

After the BJP pulled down Singh’s government, the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, and the Vidhan Sabha elections in UP that followed, delivered good results for it. The party won 120 Lok Sabha seats, and a clear majority of 221 in the 425-member UP Assembly. There was huge polarisation — and Mulayam, who as Chief Minister had thrown every thing behind his ‘hard’ secularism, was cut to just 34 seats.

Also read : Explained: The 67 acres in Ayodhya

How then do we explain the string of defeats for the BJP in UP in the elections that followed

After the Babri demolition, the Narasimha Rao government dismissed BJP governments in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh. The shock of December 6, 1992 rallied the anti-BJP forces. In UP, Bahujan (Dalit) and Mandal (OBC) forces entered into a pre-election alliance in 1993. The BJP emerged the single largest party with one seat more than the SP-BSP, but was kept out of power as other non-BJP parties backed Mulayam. In the elections in Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, the BJP was defeated, and could return in Rajasthan only with help from smaller parties.

A straight Congress-BJP bipolarity and the absence of strong Mandal parties in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal, kept the BJP in the hunt for power in these states, and in the successor states of Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.

But in UP, it stumbled, where the SP and BSP struck deep roots. The BJP was also struck by dissension — Lodh Rajput leader Kalyan Singh, its tallest kamandal and Mandal face, rebelled in the late 90s. Even so, the party was able to leverage cracks in the BSP and make ideological compromises to keep a tenuous hold on power until 2002. It slipped in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections thereafter. Until Narendra Modi came along in 2014.

How did the ideological opponents of the BJP’s Hindutva politics fare in elections during this period?

The already declining graph of the Congress in UP and Bihar suffered a body blow after the Babri Masjid was demolished on the watch of a Congress PM. As Muslims moved nearly wholesale towards the Mandal forces of Mulayam and Lalu, the Congress was put on the road to terminal decline in the two (undivided) states that sent 139 MPs to Lok Sabha.

Mulayam and Lalu clubbed their Mandal politics with a strong political secularism. While Lalu was able to keep an iron grip on Bihar from 1990 to 2005, Mulayam had to contend with the situation in UP, where the non-upper caste Hindu vote (OBCs and Dalits) was divided between the SP and BSP.

In MP, Rajasthan, and Himachal, the Congress continued to fight a see-saw battle with the BJP. It suffered a brief setback in Maharashtra in 1995. But it could never come to power in Gujarat after 1995.

Neither of the two BJP-led governments, under Vajpayee and Modi, put the Ram Temple at the top of their election campaigns or governance agendas. Why?

The demolition was a one-time event. It changed India’s political landscape, but also unleashed powerful and constant vigilance by non-BJP political parties, civil society, and the higher judiciary. It has been much more difficult for any government to cross legal and administrative lines.

Also, the BJP’s first tryst with power in the late 90s came with the help of alliance partners from the North and South who did not share its enthusiasm for the Ram Temple and other polarising issues like the Uniform Civil Code and abolition of Article 370. Vajpayee’s NDA had to keep these issues aside to forge an alliance with a common minimum agenda. Despite periodic VHP and RSS attempts to push the envelope, it was clear that the BJP, with a base only in the Hindi heartland, could not afford adventurism.

Though the Temple was mentioned in the party’s 2014 manifesto, the Modi government, which came to power on the plank of development, preferred to flaunt its other actions: a muscular policy against militants in Jammu & Kashmir (to compensate for non-action on Article 370), and cow protection and a law to ban triple talaq (to compensate for non-action on the Uniform Civil Code).

Why has the BJP decided to frontload the Ram Temple at the fag end of the Modi government’s tenure, and appears set to make it a major election plank in the coming weeks?

The RSS and VHP have clearly increased pressure since last year, putting the BJP and the government in a bind. The running battle between RSS affiliates and Vajpayee’s government ahead of the 2004 elections, and the RSS’s lukewarm support for Advani’s prime ministerial bid in 2009 are seen as major contributors to the BJP’s disappointments. The BJP’s old coalition compulsions no longer exist, and the party has been getting feedback that the Ram Temple still resonates with party cadres who believe that the government should be sympathetic to it.

The petition in the Supreme Court seeking to release the “excess” non-disputed portion of the 67 acres acquired in Ayodhya in 1993, is the least the government could have done to satisfy its cadres and affiliates as Lok Sabha elections approach. The government will also be hoping that the court moves quickly on the appeals in the title suit.

But more than 25 years after the Babri Masjid was demolished, how much traction does the Ram Temple have with the new generation of voters at large?

The VHP’s Dharm Sabhas in Ayodhya and Delhi got the crowds but lacked the intensity and raw emotions that were seen at the peak of the Ram Temple movement in 90s. This is a reminder that the issue may be nearing — or may have already passed — its sell-by date for the country’s young demographic. The opening of the Indian economy that happened at the same time as the Ram Temple agitation, has unleashed a new, aspirational outlook that goes beyond the nativist tendencies that fuelled the movement. Attention spans are often small, and despite some evidence of the persistence of overt religiosity, jobs and the aspirations of a comfortable life are clearly paramount. The stalwarts of the movement — Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar — are no more at the centrestage of politics, and the likes of Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Ashok Singhal, and Mahant Avaidyanath are not around. Even so, the BJP will continue to hope for a last burst of nativist Hindutva ahead of the elections.

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