Debating India

BJP: return to temple politics

Friday 29 December 2006, by PANIKKAR*K.N.

The attempt to invoke the name of Ram will hardly work a second time.

THE BHARATIYA Janata Party has decided to return to the politics of the Ram temple. Its decision to relaunch the temple movement is reminiscent of what it did in the 1990s: use the temple as an emotive symbol for political mobilisation. The temple issue then generated so much passion that the BJP was able to ride to power on its strength, although it left in its trail many dead and injured.

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BJP president Rajnath Singh and senior leaders L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the party headquarters in New Delhi.

Is the BJP hoping to repeat history? It appears so, at least with respect to the elections in the Uttar Pradesh early next year. Being the homeland of Lord Ram, it is believed that the promise to construct the temple would generate enough religious sentiments to catapult the BJP to power in Uttar Pradesh. Once Uttar Pradesh is captured Delhi will not be very distant; the road to Delhi, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated, is through Lucknow. The immediate fallout of invoking the temple politics is that it could pave the way for the internal consolidation of the sangh parivar. It is an open secret that the constituents of the parivar have been unhappy with the BJP leadership and have been pulling in different directions. The initiative of the BJP has created some enthusiasm among the constituents of the parivar. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which was out of sync with the BJP since the last election, has welcomed the call to resurrect the religious politics. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is likely to follow suit. The sangh parivar expects to regain the lost solidarity of its different branches through this new-found initiative.

The solidarity of the parivar had suffered as a consequence of the defeat in the last election, although the defeat in itself was not the prime reason. Notwithstanding the different interpretations by psephologists and social scientists to account for the BJP’s defeat, it is undeniable that a secular and liberal assertion against communalism played a crucial role. But the internal reading of the sangh parivar was different. The VHP and the RSS, for instance, attributed the defeat to the inability of the BJP Government to implement the Hindutva agenda. And the central theme of the Hindutva agenda was the construction of the Ram temple. The constraints of coalition politics was the official party explanation for the inability to pursue the Hindutva agenda successfully. But there were other reasons.

It appears that an ideological churning was on within the parivar, particularly with regard to the best strategy to realise Hindu Rashtra. At least some leaders had become sceptical about the feasibility of a Hindu religion-centred politics to deliver the goods. This consisted of the section generally known as the moderates in the party. To begin with, their spokesman and leader was Mr. Vajpayee, and at a later stage Lal Krishna Advani himself was in favour of this path. Such a view also underlined the quest for relative freedom from the overriding control of the RSS. The theoretical justification for this departure from the Hindutva agenda was provided by the former left-wing journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni in the notes he had prepared on India-Pakistan relations. It is widely believed that Mr. Advani’s Jinnah speech was inspired by these notes, which presumably argued for a liberal and accommodating attitude towards Pakistan.

RSS, VHP alarmed

The RSS and the VHP were alarmed by this deviation that was antithetical to the ideological commitments of the sangh parivar. They were quick to realise that any compromise with Pakistan would weaken their ideological position within the country. As a consequence they strongly and quickly retaliated and ensured the marginalisation of the advocates of the liberal line within the parivar. The speed with which Mr. Advani was shown his place by the RSS is a telling example. But the friction led to a crisis in the party, which considerably weakened it in national politics. Since then steady decline has set in the party. During this period all that it had been trying to do was to weather one crisis after the other, losing in the bargain its credibility and popularity. The BJP had perforce to do something dramatic to regain its sheen.

The decline of the BJP, however, did not mean that the sangh parivar had become irrelevant or inconsequential. Although its political wing, the BJP, had lost much of its attraction, the intervention of its social and cultural organisations continued unabated, albeit silently. The attacks on the minorities continued - in Kota in Rajasthan, in Mangalore in Karnataka, Dangs in Gujarat, and in many other places. Also new communal zones such as Baba Budangiri in Karnataka were created. At the same time "cultural" activities were undertaken with greater vigour. Ekal Vidyalayas and Saraswati Shishu Mandirs managed by the RSS have been steadily on the increase. At the same time, the reluctance of the Central Government to take a strong anti-communal stance has helped the communal forces to resurrect themselves in the public space. As a result, intellectuals who were fellow travellers of communal forces during the rule of the National Democratic Alliance are able to claw back to positions of power and thus to make their presence felt in the secular space.

Immediately after the electoral loss, the sangh parivar had given a call to return to the street. The `Prime Minister in waiting’ Mr. Advani believes the most attractive symbol that would ensure popular support is the Ram temple. Whether it will come to his rescue is a different matter. It is unlikely that the people will be prepared to shed blood once again in the name of Ram. Moreover, the spontaneity with which people responded to the Ram Rath and the temple construction is difficult to recapture.

The attempt of the BJP to invoke the name of Ram is a desperate act that will hardly appeal to the people for a second time. The divisive politics the temple agenda foregrounds does not hold much of a promise.

The resolution of the impasse in Ayodhya cannot be through the construction of either a temple or a mosque. It is necessary to seek a different solution. Historically, Ayodhya was a holy place with the presence of the followers of different religions. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims had lived there amicably. Savita Ambedkar, wife of Babasaheb Ambedkar, had once demanded that a Buddha Vihara be constructed at Ayodhya.

Taking a cue from her suggestion it may be appropriate to turn Ayodhya into a place where all religions could coexist in a creative and interactive manner: a place where religious humanism could find social and intellectual articulation. Hinduism as we know and practise it today is the result of the confluence of different philosophical and cultural steams. Creating Ayodhya as an ideal place for the coming together of different faiths would not only strengthen the secular tradition of the country, but also would help enrich Hinduism.

(The writer, a historian, is a former Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Shankaracharya University, Kalady.)

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