For once, the Vishva Hindu Parishad is making news for holding back, not rushing forth. It will not agitate or mobilise for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya for the next four months, or till Lok Sabha elections are over, it declared on Tuesday. The announcement is immensely welcome. It is also a retreat. After all, the outfit had been holding “dharma sabhas” across the country demanding that the government bring in an ordinance to enable construction of a temple. As recently as last week, it held a “dharma sansad” at the Kumbh mela on the issue. And days ago, BJP president Amit Shah urged the Opposition not to get in the way of the temple. Of course, this sudden discovery of scruple and compunction over the politicisation of the sensitive matter does not quite ring true. It may be that the VHP decision has actually been forced on it by the belated realisation that the fervour which framed the Ram temple issue in the early 1990s has dissipated, cannot be worked up again. Or it could be that the Sangh Parivar “fringe” has bowed to counsel from more mainstream shades of political saffron looking at the prospect of courting allies after the elections to make up the numbers. Whatever the reason behind it, the VHP announcement can free up valuable space for the parliamentary poll campaign to focus on the less polarising issue.
The country has changed since the time the Ram temple mobilisation dominated the polity in the 1990s, altered the language of politics, and shifted its centre of gravity rightward. It is even possible to argue that in its success lay the seeds of its irrelevance. The fact that it changed the larger political narrative and conversation has also made it all the more difficult for political actors to use it as a pretext for a new mobilisation. Also, a new generation of voters has come of age after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. For them, the temple is a less immediate, less pressing narrative, or at the very least, one that must compete for their attention with other claims and stories of national politics. In this context, therefore, the VHP’s step back is a good omen for the impending election campaign which can concentrate on matters such as jobs and agricultural distress, the competing models of growth and welfare, the health of federalism and institutions. Even if these issues do not become the stuff of election campaign — unfortunately, they seldom do — a calmer, less inflamed run-up to the election will itself be a good thing.
The fringe has spoken, and this time the mainstream must follow. The Centre has moved the Supreme Court, seeking its permission to return the 67 acres in Ayodhya adjacent to the disputed site to the original owners, including the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas. The government must let the matter rest there — and wait for the court.