Monday, 26 August, was an important day in the life of the Lok Sabha in more ways than one. Known best for the increasing number of disruptions over the past few years, the 15th Lok Sabha functioned for nearly 12 hours at a stretch—after a gap of almost three years. With the debate extending late into the night, Indian Parliament passed the UPA-II’s showpiece Food Security Bill, which aims to provide staples of diet nearly free to over two-thirds of India’s population. The Congress hopes that its enactment will see it cobble together and lead a UPA-III coalition after the 2014 General Election. Congress President Sonia Gandhi made a speech in the House on the Bill—again, a first for her on a bill under the UPA-II regime—making it amply clear that the ruling party was ready to ditch the middle-class and India’s economic story of growth and fall back on its core constituency, India’s poor, that it has held on to since Indira Gandhi’s early days in politics.
But, as a pointer to what one may expect in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from the opposition camp, a seemingly less significant development cannot escape notice: the Bharatiya Janata Party, too, decided to address its core constituency with its intervention on the floor of the House. The party decided to throw its weight behind the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s rekindling of the Ram Temple issue and its proposed 20-day march for the construction of this temple at Ayodhya.
The party’s Gorakhpur MP, the saffron-clad priest-politician Yogi Adityanath, let loose a tirade during Zero Hour in Parliament against the Uttar Pradesh government led by Akhilesh Yadav, accusing it of “sheltering Muslim jihadi terrorists while humiliating Hindus and their saints.” Adityanath demanded that the Centre dismiss the Samajwadi Party government in UP even as the SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav listened and several BJP MPs in the house applauded by thumping their tables in agreement. “By banning the [chauraasi kosi] parikrama, the [state] government has affected 10 crore people in Uttar Pradesh and humiliated them,” he went on to say, “This government has no right to stay in power, it should be dismissed.”
If there was any doubt left that the BJP was supporting the VHP’s shrill cry for building the temple, the party cleared it by fielding Adityanath in the Lok Sabha that day to speak on the matter and later address the party’s official media briefing in the Parliament Complex. The Gorakhpur MP went on to demand legislation supporting the temple’s construction.
In his address to the House, Adityanath said: “I want to remind all parties in the country which run their politics in the name of secularism that the Congress-led government had submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 1994. It was stated in this affidavit that if it is established that the disputed structure in Ayodhya was built by demolishing a Hindu temple or monument then the action that follows will be in keeping with Hindu sentiments.” “At last,” he said, citing dubious ‘evidence’, “it has been proved… In the 30 September 2010 judgment of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad HC, all three judges have ruled in agreement that the disputed site [at Ayodhya] is actually the birthplace of Ram. When the disputed land is indeed Ramjanmabhoomi, then the congress of saints has been demanding a law for the construction of a Ram temple. That is no sin. We are demanding our right. We are simply demanding that a grand temple be built at the Ramjanmabhoomi. This government should make a law because the affidavit in the Supreme Court was [filed] by the Congress-led government at that time.” Adityanath’s address was a reiteration of the claims and demands made by VHP chief Ashok Singhal in the run-up to the proposed march.
From the time the SP disallowed the padyatra (march on foot) and imposed a ban on any public assembly in and around Ayodhya, BJP leaders had been issuing statements critical of the SP government for trying to thwart the VHP- organised march of Hindu sadhus. On the eve of the march, on 24 August, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj dismissed allegations that the hype over the yatra was an attempt by both the SP and BJP to polarise voters in their favour by fostering a Hindu-Muslim divide in the state. “The charge is absolutely baseless. There is no tension due to the yatra, but because of statements being made on it. People should refrain from making [such] statements and it will pass off peacefully,” she said.
On the day the march was to begin, the UP government swooped down on VHP activists, arrested Singhal, the outfit’s vice-president Praveen Togadia and more than 2,000 others, including sadhus from different parts of the state—as a way to implement the SP’s ban on the saffron mobilisation.
The BJP claims that the figure is much larger. “More than 3,000 saints, Hindu activists and Rambhakts [devotees of Ram] have been arrested,” Adityanath said at the BJP’s media briefing. The visible lack of resistance put up by VHP activists and sadhus resulted in allegations of the entire drama being a ‘fixed match’ between the SP and the BJP, a way for both to play to their respective galleries of Muslim and Hindu voters.
There were other problems with the proposed march. Among them was its timing. Mahant Gyandas, head of the committee that organises one such parikrama every year, blamed the VHP for playing politics. Gyandas told The Hindu: “The yatra has always been held from Chaitra Purnima to Baisakh Navami, according to rituals. I have been participating since I was 10. It has already been performed by sadhus [at the appropriate] time and the original parikrama is done.” Besides, sadhus had been performing the ritual routinely and had not needed the state administration’s permission for it all these years.
Both the VHP and SP played a slanging match in full public view for days together. Singhal addressed the media on several occasions in the run-up to the yatra, shriller each time in demanding the temple. On 20 August, he blamed “Muslims in the SP” for the UP government’s decision to ban the chauraasi kosi parikrama.
POLARISING UTTAR PRADESH
The increase in Singhal’s shrillness coincides with the BJP’s anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the party’s election campaign committee chief. While Modi himself has remained silent on the demand for a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, focusing nationally on his campaign for a ‘Congress-free India’ to cash in on a wave of anti-Congress sentiment, UP is a different battle arena altogether. Within a month of Modi’s appointment, his lieutenant and party general secretary in charge of UP, Amit Shah, visited Ayodhya on 6 July. “Crores of Hindus in the country want to see a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. We all will work for the construction of a massive temple as early as possible. I have also prayed to the god [Ram] for uprooting Congress misrule in India and replacing it with good governance,” Shah told journalists after offering prayers at the makeshift Ram temple in the area, laying bare the party’s poll roadmap for UP.
The BJP won 10 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls in UP, finishing a dismal fourth behind the SP (23 seats), Congress (21 seats) and Bahujan Samaj Party (20 seats). With Narendra Modi set to be anointed the party’s prime ministerial candidate, the party realises it will find allies hard to come by unless it can overtake the Congress’tally by a margin of 30 seats or more. While survey after survey has shown a sharp decline in the Congress’ expected tally in 2014, it has also been pointed out that the ruling party’s losses will not be to the saffron party’s advantage, but will likely go to smaller and regional outfits. In the BJP’s calculations, a Hindu-Muslim polarisation in UP is its best bet.
Psephologist and BJP Election Reforms Committee member GVL Narasimha Rao predicts 50 seats for the party in UP based on a survey he says he has conducted. Rao clarifies that it is not an internal survey of the BJP, but his political affiliations are clear. “Every party has a core vote and it should decide its strategy based on that core in mind,” he says, speaking to Open.
Rao, a former national executive member of the party, has been batting for Modi for a while now, asserting that secular leadership would do the BJP no good. In June last year, writing in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s mouthpiece The Organiser, Rao argued in favour of Modi’s declaration as as the party’s PM candidate. He also likened his appeal as a vote catcher to that of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. He followed it up with another article in the same RSS publication titled ‘Why the BJP should not bother about skittish allies or the ‘Muslim vote’’ In the piece, Rao argues: ‘The widely propagated theory that Muslim consolidation against the BJP hurts it electorally is bunkum. It is a bogie raised by the BJP’s opponents and its own apologists. There is ample evidence to the contrary. Muslims’ rabid opposition to the BJP has indeed proved to be beneficial to it electorally. Take the case of Uttar Pradesh. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, held three years after the Babri [Masjid] demolition, the BJP bagged 52 of 85 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Again, in 1998, the BJP bagged 57 seats. If vehement opposition from Muslims and their tactical voting against the BJP could defeat the BJP, it could not have performed well in UP in both these elections. The outcome of the 1996 and 1998 elections in Uttar Pradesh shows that the opposition of Muslims does not adversely affect the BJP. On the contrary, the Muslims’ opposition to the BJP has been beneficial to it electorally by consolidating Hindu votes in its favour.’
Within the BJP, the number of takers for this argument has gradually increased ever since Modi’s anointment. According to a party source, the BJP will make no effort to polarise voters but spare none to effect a reverse polarisation of the sort Rao refers to—with Hindus reacting to Muslims voting en bloc. That could explain why senior party leader and Modi-supporter Arun Jaitley tried to reach Kishtwar in Jammu after violence broke out there in early August between Hindus and Muslims.
HINDUTVA’S POSTER BOY
In the VHP, the BJP sees an ally that can deliver the hard Muslim opposition to saffron politics that could result in a ‘reverse polarisation’ of the electorate. The VHP is game because Modi’s ascent to the BJP’s top has revived its hopes of the party’s re-adoption of its Hindutva agenda of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “The VHP believes that the locks [of the Babri Masjid] were opened and the structure was demolished [on 6 December 1992] because of a movement by Hindus. People in Gujarat have seen that sort of faith in Hindu beliefs resurrected in the last decade or so. If Modi comes to power [at the Centre], he will obviously think of the Hindus of the country,” explains Prakash Sharma, national spokesperson of the VHP.
Relations between the VHP and the BJP had reached a nadir in 2003, the last year of Vajpayee’s term in power at the Centre. By then, VHP leaders had become extremely critical of the BJP leadership. VHP General Secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore even termed Vajpayee a ‘pseudo Hindu’ for not actively pursuing the Ram Temple issue.
In Modi now, the Sangh Parivar led by the RSS sees a potential PM who is unflinching in his Hindutva affiliation.
Vajpayee was never seen as a Hindutva icon, LK Advani let his prime ministerial ambitions get the better of his hardline position. For three years after taking charge of the RSS as its chief, Mohan Bhagwat aggressively supported Nitin Gadkari as the BJP chief and saw him as the party’s future PM candidate. A political lightweight, Gadkari not only proved a colossal failure as BJP president but suffered allegations of corruption that forced him out of contention. The RSS needed an alternate candidate.
Modi fit the bill. Even as he harped on his development model and sharpened his anti-Congress pitch, he never let his image as a Hindutva strongman get diluted. Gestures like refusing to wear a skullcap, ironically while on a fast for ‘sadbhavana’ (goodwill) among communities, or accusing the Congress of hiding behind “a burkha of secularism”, have only raised his stature with the RSS. Modi’s acceptability within the broader BJP has also gone up several notches on the back of RSS support.
It all adds up. Amit Shah’s Ayodhya visit, Adityanath’s demand for legislation on a Ram temple, the VHP’s new found bonhomie with the BJP, and Subramaniam Swamy’s joining the party are all in accordance with a grand saffron plan drawn up in Nagpur: the return of Ram to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s agenda.