On May 28, 1996, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Lok Sabha that the reason his 13-day government had omitted references to the Ram temple, Article 370, and Common Civil Code in the President’s Address to the joint sitting of Parliament was that the BJP did not have a majority. “…Yeh hamare iss samay ke karyakram mein nahin hai… aur isliye nahin hai ki hamare pass bahumat nahin hai. Baat sahi hai. Koi chhupane ki baat nahin hai. (There is nothing to hide. These issues are not on our agenda because we do not have a majority.)”
The country’s first BJP-led government fell that day – but within a fortnight, on June 11, while opposing the motion of trust moved by Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, Sushma Swaraj said Vajpayee’s resignation had set the stage for establishment of Ram Rajya in India.
“Ram Rajya aur surajya ki niyati hi yahi hai ki who ek bade jhatke ke baad milta hai… Jis din mere neta ne pradhan mantri ke pad se tyagpatra ki ghoshna ki thi, Hindustan mein us din Ram rajya ki bhoomika taiyar ho gayi thi. (It is the destiny of Ram Rajya that it is achieved only after a struggle. But the preface to Ram Rajya was written the day my leader gave up his post.)”
Armed with the majority that had eluded Vajpayee and L K Advani, PM Narendra Modi’s BJP has achieved two of the three components of its original core agenda: the virtual abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 and, exactly a year later, the beginning of the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
August 5, 2020 marks the final demise of an old political consensus and the beginning of a new journey for the nation, the contours of which have been worked upon by the Sangh for decades now.
A fundamental faultline
The political landscape of India has been shaped by the tussle between two competing and mutually antagonistic grand ideas: composite nationalism and cultural nationalism.
Initially, the dominant idea of Indian nationalism was the one the Congress championed. India’s composite culture, shaped by influences from different cultures over the centuries, was its leitmotif.
The BJP, its predecessor Jana Sangh, and their parent the RSS, rejected the idea of composite nationalism as a ploy by the post-Independence ruling elite to hide out of sight the impulses that had resulted in Partition. Indian nationalism, the Sangh argued, was a continuous stream flowing for thousands of years, based on the Hindu culture of South Asia. In this understanding, concepts such as composite culture appeared as an attempt to deny Hindu cultural nationalism its rightful place.
Contradiction in practice
Given the history of Partition, the modernist-conservative tussle often played out in the contradiction between modern secularism and the promotion of symbols of “Indian culture” such as cows and temples. Even within the Congress, there were strains – Jawaharlal Nehru and other progressives disapproved of the support that Sardar Patel, K M Munshi and President Rajendra Prasad lent to “Hindu revivalism”, which was on display during the opening of the rebuilt Somnath Temple. Indeed, Advani’s decision to start his first Rath Yatra from Somnath in September 1990 was imbued with political symbolism.
Patel’s demise and Nehru’s electoral successes checked this tussle within the Congress. Outside, the Jana Sangh fought political battles over cow protection and the promotion of Hindi. These issues contributed significantly to its success in 1967, the first elections in which the Congress suffered setbacks in states.
The popularity of Indira Gandhi reduced the electoral space for the Jana Sangh; the Emergency, and Indira’s introduction of the word ‘secularism’ in the Preamble, however, opened new windows of opportunity. The Jana Sangh merged with the Janata Party, Vajpayee and Advani became ministers in the central government, and its leaders got power in post-Emergency governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
Birth and growth of BJP
The gains for the erstwhile Jana Sangh triggered a response in its ideological opponents. The RSS sympathies of the Jana Sangh elements within Janata became a sticking point – and their expulsion contributed to the collapse of the first non-Congress Union government. The expelled RSS sympathisers reinvented themselves as the BJP in April 1980.
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The BJP under the leadership of Vajpayee experimented with Gandhian socialism, and suffered a humiliating defeat in the elections after Indira’s assassination. Its appetite for further experimentation gone, the party, guided by the RSS and VHP, chose to build its politics around mobilisation for the Ram Temple. The responsibility for leading the BJP was assigned to Advani.
The Shah Bano case and steps taken by Rajiv Gandhi’s government revived the old tussle between secular nationalism and cultural nationalism. After pandering to the Muslim orthodoxy, the Congress sought to appease Hindu conservatives through tentative steps on the Ram Temple – and Advani called out this “pseudo-secularism”. The BJP positioned itself more aggressively and, in 1989, formally adopted the Ram Temple resolution.
A foot in the door
The gains of the 1989 elections set the BJP firmly on the path of pursuing its core agenda. Advani’s Rath Yatra and the kar seva in Ayodhya strongly polarised the politics of North India, and led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. In 1996, the other parties put aside their disagreements to pull down Vajpayee’s 13-day government. But the instability of the United Front gave cultural nationalist politics another chance – and Vajpayee returned in 1998, and 1999.
Carrying the burden of coalition politics, the BJP governments of 1998-2004 had no room to push the cultural nationalism project. But the RSS was in a hurry. From the end of 2001, the VHP began fresh mobilisation for the temple. Vajpayee was caught between his coalition and RSS. The burning of the train carrying kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya exploded in the form of the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Return to power and agenda
After Modi led the BJP back to power in 2014, the BJP got busy consolidating its gains in Assemblies. The compulsions of coalition that had held back Vajpayee had disappeared, but the Ram Temple was in the Supreme Court. Article 370, however, was within the government’s control. Once the party returned to power with an enhanced majority in 2019, it moved quickly.
First came the criminalisation of triple talaq, the low hanging fruit on the way to a Uniform Civil Code. Then Jammu & Kashmir was stripped of its special status under Article 370. The government lent its weight to demands that the Supreme Court expedite hearing on the Babri title suit challenge. Once the court had given its verdict, the BJP was able to drop every hesitation in claiming the victory of its political-ideological agenda.
The language and attitude of BJP spokespersons now betray the heady awareness of victory. The Bhoomi Pujan by the Prime Minister in Ayodhya on Wednesday marks a bend in the stream of India’s political consciousness, even as the champions of composite (secular) nationalism falter in their opposition. By drawing parallels between August 5 and August 15, the Prime Minister has placed the idea of liberation from cultural subjugation on the same pedestal as the political independence of India nearly 73 years ago.