Updated: November 10, 2019 5:53:03 pm
Since his first brush with Ayodhya three decades ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political life has been enmeshed with the issue. Now, with the Supreme Court delivering its verdict on the decades-long dispute, Modi is heading the government that will oversee the construction of the Ram temple there. The BJP organisation man who coordinated a part of the first leg of the movement, is today the PM who, after the apex court verdict, urged the nation to build a new India without bitterness.
The RSS and its affiliate groups had initially decided to raise the pitch for construction of a temple at the site where the Babri Masjid stood, claiming that the 16th-century mosque was built by demolishing a temple at the birthplace of Ram. After the BJP’s dismal electoral performance in 1984 — it got only two seats in the Lok Sabha — the party leadership along with its ideological parent decided to use the Ram temple issue in its efforts for national recognition as well as electoral growth.
With the efforts yielding results — the party won 89 seats in 1989 — then BJP president L K Advani planned a Rath Yatra as part of the Ram temple movement. Modi, then a member of the BJP’s national election committee, was tasked with coordinating the yatra from Somnath in Gujarat on September 25, 1990, to Mumbai.
In 2002, Modi had just taken over as Chief Minister of Gujarat when a train carrying more than 2,000 passengers, who were returning after kar seva in Ayodhya, were attacked. Fifty-nine kar sevaks were burned to death. The incident triggered riots in Gujarat, and more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims. While Modi maintained that he did everything in his power to contain the rioting, his critics accuse him of indifference to the plight of Muslims.
The incident left a deep scar on Modi’s image. Congress president Sonia Gandhi went to the extent of referring to him as ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death) during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign, and the term was used by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, leader of BJP’s ally Janata Dal-United, to break away from the NDA. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA’s defeat in the 2004 general election was also attributed to the dent in the BJP’s image due to the Gujarat violence. Vajpayee told a television channel that the “impact of the Gujarat riots was felt nationwide… Modi should have been removed after the incident.” However, Advani had called Modi a victim of the vilification campaign over the Gujarat riots.
The developments helped Modi emerge as a prominent Hindu leader, and he took the Hindutva line in the following Assembly elections. However, he did not use the Hindutva plank during his campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With Modi riding on the development narrative, the BJP put the Ram temple construction under the subhead ‘Cultural Heritage’ in its election manifesto, which stated: “BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.”
Ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, however, the issue was back on the party’s primary agenda. The Union government in October 2016 announced the setting up of a Ramayana Museum in Ayodhya.
During his first term as PM, Modi, who had several times before 2014 raised the issue passionately, did not even visit Ayodhya, but held election rallies outside the temple city. As PM, he also refrained from referring to the temple issue.
Addressing the nation after the Supreme Court judgment was pronounced on Saturday, Modi highlighted that it was a unanimous verdict. He said: “Today is 9th November, the day when Berlin Wall was brought down. Today the Kartarpur Corridor was also inaugurated, (and) now the Ayodhya verdict, so this date gives us the message to stay united and move forward.”
“The verdict has brought a new dawn, now the next generation will build a new India. Today is the day to forget any bitterness one may have; no place for fear, bitterness and negativity in new India,” he said, adding that the message was about coming together to move forward.
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