Prime Minister Narendra Modi may want the BJP and even other affiliates of the parent RSS to move away from temple-type political issues following the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Ayodhya case. Nobody better understands the limitations of issues like the Ram temple than Modi, which threatened to upset his campaign for the Lok Sabha polls early this year.
Sections of the hardline Hindutva elements were unhappy in the run-up to the last elections, accusing his government of not doing anything to implement the promise of a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya. Until the Supreme Court gave indications of a regular day-to-day hearing to hear the petitions challenging the Allahabad High Court’s verdict of 2010, there was no let-up in that pressure on the PM and the BJP. It is another matter that a host of other issues helped Modi succeed in projecting under his leadership and winning a record mandate powered by nationalist fervour and patriotism. The Ram temple was certainly not one of them.
But, with the verdict that sets the path for the construction of the temple, Modi has shown enough indications that the BJP must move on to complete the economic agenda, which holds the severest of the challenges for him.
In fact, his first address to the nation soon after the verdict on November 9 evening pointed to his desire that his supporters move on and remember the larger economic agenda before him, which is his ultimate test of effective leadership. Without mincing words, Modi had said, “Let’s make a new beginning. There are so many other goals and so many other challenges. No one should be left behind in the march towards progress.”
His remarks were intended to apply balm on those sections of the society, especially the minorities, who would be more happy with special attention for their welfare than a most favourable deal in the Ayodhya dispute. As if in consonance with the approach of the PM, we saw RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as well as VHP leader Alok Kumar reiterate with a lot of emphasis that they had no other agenda before them other than first ensuring the building of the Ram temple. This meant that they would not do anything to torpedo Modi’s economic agenda.
Soon after the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Ayodhya case, many have asked whether it can lead to permanent closure of contentious issues for better Hindu-Muslim relations. Modi would certainly want such a closure.
Both the heads of the RSS and the VHP seemed to share Modi’s concern that they do not get into any fresh projects like the Ram temple and, rather, rein in their cadres from any 1990-type adventurism. The verdict is only a beginning as far as the Ram temple is concerned. But Modi is conscious that, for his “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” he would have to go several miles to win the full confidence of all sections who are still looking for greater reassurance in terms of inclusiveness. Therefore, Modi’s priority has to be the economy, revival of which in the next two years can set the tone for his party’s electoral successes in the future.
His “unity in diversity” mantra in recent months underscores his desire to move away from the tag that his critics would love to pin on him — always a polarising leader. At the same time, it should surprise no one if Modi ensures that the Ram temple construction work goes on a mission mode like the Statue of Unity in Gujarat and completed in two or three years. A magnificent temple for Ram at Ayodhya will definitely be a feather on his cap, which would help him retain the support of those hardline supporters.
In the meantime, he can focus on the economy and ways to bring faster growth.
Even when senior BJP leader L K Advani embarked upon the Ram Rath yatra, the role of Modi was not as significant as other second-line leaders like Pramod Mahajan or K N Govindacharya. In those years, Modi was more comfortable under the leadership of Murli Manohar Joshi. In fact, Modi was chief strategist for Joshi’s Ekta yatra in 1991. Modi was not then seen as an Advani acolyte.
Of course, Modi’s critics will try to test his “unity mantra” on his party and government by checking on whether they are actually working towards a complete closure with regards to the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. The Supreme Court judgement has ruled that the demolition and the placing of the Ram idol were illegalities, and the guilty of the act be brought to book. In its view, the first damage to the mosque in 1934, its desecration in 1949 and the eventual destruction on December 6, 1992 remain a serious violation of the rule of law.
Modi has scope for reinforcement of his image as New India leader if he can get his party government in Uttar Pradesh to fast track cases filed in connection with the demolition of the masjid. Senior BJP leaders L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti still remain accused of conspiracy in the case. The conspiracy charge was also invoked against Vinay Katiar and Sadhvi Ritambara by the Supreme Court in April 2017. Kalyan Singh, who was Uttar Pradesh chief minister during the 1992 demolition of the mosque, again faces trial on completion of his stint as governor of Rajasthan.
It cannot be ruled out that Modi may derive support from a sizeable sections of the society that believe that the apex court’s verdict has drawn the curtains on not just the vexed title dispute case but also divisive politics that have persisted over the decades.
There is a sense of relief that this moment presents an opportunity to rebuild and strengthen inter-faith ties. Even among sections of the Muslim community, the consensus is for conciliation, acceptance and moving forward. They feel the temple-masjid issue can be put behind them as the community seeks a greater role in India’s economic success.
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi