Both the BJP and SP insist that they are promoting culture and tourism, that politics has nothing to do with it. The BJP is moving ahead on plans to build a Ramayana Sangrahalaya, over 25 acres, about 15 km from the disputed site at Ayodhya where the Babri masjid once stood; the museum will be part of the Ramayana circuit which will be developed to attract pilgrims and tourists, it claims. The SP government has announced its own plans to develop an international theme park, the Ramleela park, along the banks of the Sarayu in Ayodhya. Both parties’ disavowals of politics ring insincere.
On the issue of stoking emotive issues and symbols and communal polarisation for electoral gain, the BJP has much to answer for. Ahead of the upcoming elections in UP, attempts are already being made by the party to raise temperatures to get votes. Shiv Sena and BJP hoardings and banners thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the army for the surgical strikes on terror launch pads along the LoC — and calling for more — have come up in places like Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra and Muzaffarnagar. BJP workers have organised functions to felicitate Parrikar that have featured unabashedly war-like rhetoric. In this climate, the PM’s decision to join the Dussehra celebrations in Lucknow seemed politically loaded and the BJP-led Centre’s attempt to revive the debate on the issue of triple talaq is viewed by a large section of the minority community as a ploy to consolidate the party’s Hindu vote bank in UP. In this moment, the planned Ramayana Sangrahalaya has already provoked party hardliners to dismiss it as a “lollipop”, meant to deflect the real demand for a Ram temple at Ayodhya. But if the BJP invites suspicions of bad faith with its proposed museum in the temple city, the announcement of the Ramleela theme park shows the SP as welcoming — rather than wary — of the possible return of the Ram temple as an issue in the UP polls.
Both BJP and SP must acknowledge that at stake in the way they frame their campaign is the future of the state. Will UP go back to the identity-based jostling between parties of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? Or will it build on the large and comprehensive verdicts of the assembly elections of 2012 and the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, in which traditional vote banks and faultlines were overtaken by a coming together, the recognition of a shared hope for change? As ruling parties at the Centre and in the state, the BJP and SP cannot afford to evade these questions.