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The Ayodhya dilemma?

The Ayodhya issue is now on the front burner. Statements from various Sangh parivar leaders questioning the Supreme Court’s decision to defer hearings till January are striking a combative note. Yogi Adityanath’s declaration about building a massive Ram statue is a clear attempt to drum up public sentiment on the issue, as is his decision to rename Faizabad district as Ayodhya. Given the prospect of a weaker level of support for it in 2019, this issue might well be, in the estimation of many, the multiplier the BJP needs. Various commentators have, on the other hand, been asking whether Ram Janmabhoomi is still the issue it once was in the minds of voters, and given the criticality of this question in the political scheme of things, it is a question well worth examining.

The problem might not have to do with time. The real problem for the BJP is that demolishing the mosque is in truth what was really the emotional arrowhead for the movement. As a sign of growing Hindu assertiveness and as a counter to the anxiety about the perceived weakness of the majority community, the existing structure had to be brought down by force. The idea of historical retribution demanded the destruction of the mosque. The Ayodhya issue has always been much more about Babri Masjid than the Ram temple. The sense of exultation that followed in its camp following the bringing down of Babri masjid is a clue to what the movement was really about. Building a temple, on the other hand, lacks the emotional power that the act of demolition carried. There is no dearth of temples in India, nor in Ayodhya, and the idea of one more temple, however significant, can generate only so much emotion.

In any case, an act of demolition takes place at one point in time, and allows for the concentration of feeling, and a sense of exhilaration when the deed is done. To take down what exists is an act of conquest; to build something new is mere construction. Building a temple is an action stretched out in time, and is an exercise in logistics rather than catharsis. It is difficult to mobilise the same kind of intensity for a task of this nature. Even if the Patel statue for instance, does pay some political dividends, the act of building it, was in itself devoid of any emotional involvement.

For the issue to matter electorally, the BJP needs an enemy that it can rail against. In 1992, the enemy was the mosque, but today there seems to be nothing comparable that it can mobilise a movement against. The perpetual sense of having to fight against an overwhelming historical or ideological force, is key to its strategy, and is something that it manages to contrive time and again. The ‘urban naxals’, the award-wapsi gang, the love-jihadis, the JNU azaadi brigade- these are all labels that the party has used inventively to try and mobilise its support base. In this case too, the act of building a temple, for it to pay real dividends, needs to be imagined not as an act of construction but as an act of defiance. This is not easy to do, given that it is in power in both the Centre and the state.

The Congress is the obvious choice of enemy as indicated by Yogi Adityanath’s recent statement asking the party to clarify whether it is on Bhagwan Ram’s side or Babar’s. The Congress, on its part, has been careful to avoid articulating a directly confrontational position on this subject. In a larger sense too, its strategy seems to be to try and sidestep the Hindutva question, by adopting what critics have called a ‘soft Hindutva’ approach. While the Congress cannot out-Hindutva the BJP, it can try and inoculate itself to the extent it can, and avoid the anti-Hindu label, is perhaps the underlying thought. Whether this opportunistic strategy works or not, it does in this case make the BJP’s search for an enemy in Ayodhya that much more difficult.

That leaves the Supreme Court as a possible antagonist. The Sabarimala agitation has already opened the door for the BJP to try and position the Supreme Court as a bastion of the left-liberal that is not sensitive to Hindu sentiments. In this case too, it might be tempted to harness whatever resentment that might exist and direct it against the courts. The problem is that unlike Sabarimala where the courts have taken a decision, in the case of Ayodhya, the court has simply postponed the issue. Given that the matter has been hanging fire for decades, using the delay as an issue is unlikely to mean much. Also, the Supreme Court makes for a sterile, faceless enemy, as well as a dangerous one.

The weightage that the ruling party decides to give to the Ayodhya issue will be a reflection of how it sees itself. A more confident party would choose a more rounded and balanced plank. Committing itself to follow through on this issue would come at the cost of a more future-facing campaign proposition, and it could further alienate those that voted for it in 2014, and are on the fence today. There is a danger in believing too much in the power of this kind of politics- the act of changing the names of so many cities with Muslim-sounding names is, for instance one that risks communicating that the government has nothing more substantial to promise the voters. Also, because the Ram Janmabhoomi issue as it stands is not emotionally ripe for electoral exploitation, if the BJP decides to go all the way on it, it will need to convert it into a more polarising wedge issue. This will mean that it will need to raise the pitch to a much more emotionally resonant level by actively looking for a fight. That does not augur well for the tenor of the campaign going forward.

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