22 - 10 - 2020

Temple done, polls ahead

A snapshot of the dais bearing the luminaries who partook of the rituals marking the start of the Ram temple construction in Ayodhya encapsulated the mandir’s journey and the vicissitudes it traversed across India.

Barring Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, none of the Ramjanmabhoomi era ‘superstars’ were present. The mahant was the only living relic of an eon that started inconspicuously in 1985 with the consecration of the bricks that will go in raising the temple. Since then, the saga was signposted by events that contested the premises on which post-Independence India was envisioned and founded, altered the political and social fundamentals and upended the notion of Hinduism as an inclusive and receptive faith.

The mahant aside, the others on the stage were tangentially engaged with the temple chapter or did not figure in it. PM Modi was among the convenors of LK Advani’s ‘Ram rath yatra’ in 1990, when it was launched from Somnath, but he did not accompany him outside Gujarat. Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras (Balasaheb) was then the RSS sarsanghchalak while Anandiben Patel, the UP Governor, and Yogi Adityanath, the CM, were unheard of. Modi visited Ayodhya again when he steered Murli Manohar Joshi’s motorised chariot on the ‘Ekta yatra’ in 1991-92. He stopped briefly at Ayodhya as a guest at Mahant Das’s Maniram ki Chavni temple complex. He did not campaign in Ayodhya in 2014 and 2019, choosing to stop over at Goshaiganj, that is 25 km from the pilgrim town and part of the Ambedkar Nagar Lok Sabha constituency.

Mahant Das heads the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, a trust which the VHP constituted after the Babri mosque’s demolition to oversee the temple construction. Once the SC paved the way, the Centre initially seemed reluctant to engage the VHP and the affiliated clergy. These stakeholders rose to such positions of dominance in the late ’80s and ’90s that they resented the BJP’s political expropriation of the temple ‘movement’, and the ruling Congress’s proclivity to play games by creating a parallel front of Ayodhya’s seers to counter the VHP. But they desisted from protesting aloud because those days, the diktat of the RSS ran strong over its constituents. VHP leaders like Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore and Omkar Bhave were dedicated pracharaks and would never have dreamt of defying its writ. They worked in tandem with the RSS’s uncelebrated Moreshwar Nilkanth Pingle (known as Morapant) who conceptualised the Ram temple, drew up a blueprint and amplified its ‘historical’ and political underpinnings. When the BJP stepped in, its leaders had little to do except disseminate Pingle’s theories and messages to the country in road shows.

However, there’s one exception in the cast of characters to hold forth from Ayodhya on Wednesday. That is Adityanath. The CM’s spiritual forbear, Mahant Avaidyanath, founded the Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagya Samiti in 1983 before the RSS-VHP embarked on a programme to ‘liberate Ram’s birthplace’. Avaidyanath was originally a Hindu Mahasabha member but importantly, he was the custodian of the Gorakhnath Math, a premier religious institution of east UP. Adityanath took over the monastery after his guru passed away and learnt his politics from him.

Avaidyanath was deeply political, a feisty orator and the perfect candidate to foster the Sangh’s temple agenda in UP, which he did. His speeches often spurred communal conflicts but that suited the RSS-BJP at that point, particularly because UP was rife with caste confrontations following the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. The pro-Dalit BSP also registered its presence around that time. Avaidyanath was elected to the Lok Sabha from Gorakhpur a number of times and Adityanath effortlessly slipped into his shoes.

The Sangh’s utmost priority was to unshackle the temple movement from the clutches of the Brahmin clergy and broad-base its appeal by reaching out to the backward castes and Dalits so that the BJP would outgrow its urban, Bania base in the heartland and win over the constituents that were historically wedded to the Congress and the Socialists. Ayodhya seemed the right epicentre for the project because the custodians of its myriad temples were from various castes, except the Dalits. The RSS fulfilled its objective electorally since 1989 in the heartland but every now and then, other formidable social coalitions that pushed the communal programme on the back burner triumphed. In the ebb and flow, the temple receded in the background. Doubtless, the BJP got the fillip it needed in 1989 and 1991 in the name of Ram but once the mosque was felled, the issue was subject to the law of diminishing returns. Vajpayee’s charisma saw the BJP through a couple of elections before Modi took over. The temple was there and not there: it featured as a ritual in its election manifestoes and except for the VHP and its collaborators, nobody seemed in a great hurry to see a bhavya structure supplant the ‘makeshift’ one.

What happens hereon? UP votes in 2022. The Opposition is mum. Unlike in the 1990s when the Sangh’s displays of strength at Ayodhya provoked corresponding responses from a vibrant Opposition, no leader is inclined to say a word for fear of antagonising the Hindus for whom Modi symbolises the potent mix of Hindutva and ‘nationalism’. At least in the heartland. Social media juxtaposed images of Modi and Ram, a first because at the crest of Advani’s popularity, the idea of fusing his persona with that of the ‘Maryada Purshottam’ did not occur even as a flight of fancy.

Since Adityanath faces his first test two years hence, the onus of ‘branding’ the temple and recycling the political message falls on him before Modi takes over the task in 2024. The ‘mandir wahin banayenge’ slogan saw the BJP through in a couple of elections. But when the party went to the people in the 1993 UP elections with the claim ‘jo kaha so kiya’, an allusion to the Babri demolition, it didn’t resonate. In the end, the temple will possibly be one element in BJP 2.0’s overall Hindutva ‘nationalism’ playbook for which the Opposition has no answers so far.

Radhika Ramaseshan

Senior Journalist