With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi turning the ‘Bhoomi Pujan’ for the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya into a grand spectacle, non-BJP parties were faced with a difficult dilemma.
They were faced with two choices:
To hail the foundation laying ceremony for the temple and join Lord Ram’s bandwagon
Respect the sentiments of Muslims, for most of whom, the construction of the temple is linked to an extremely traumatic event – the demolition of the Babri Masjid
The ‘secular’ parties carefully worded their statements, trying to balance the two concerns.
However, in many cases, the scales appeared tilted heavily on one side. Here’s an overview of how various ‘secular’ parties responded, the calculations driving these responses and two key aspects on which they may have failed.
The Congress chose a surprisingly celebratory approach, with party general secretary in-charge for Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi, hailing the Bhoomi Pujan and expressing hope that the ceremony “becomes an occasion for national unity.”
The All India Mahila Congress even put out a video of her statement, showing Priyanka as a devotee with Lord Ram on the side.
आगामी 5 अगस्त, 2020 को रामलला के मंदिर के भूमिपूजन का कार्यक्रम रखा गया है। भगवान राम की कृपा से यह कार्यक्रम उनके संदेश को प्रसारित करने वाला राष्ट्रीय एकता, बंधुत्व और सांस्कृतिक समागम का कार्यक्रम बने।
- श्रीमती @priyankagandhi pic.twitter.com/p3BhgLp2bU
— All India Mahila Congress (@MahilaCongress) August 4, 2020
The Uttar Pradesh Congress carried out a social media campaign focussed on Priyanka’s praise for Lord Ram, showing her sporting a Tilak and a garland.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi was more restrained and avoided mentioning the Bhoomi Pujan. Instead, he made a subtle political point by saying that, “Lord Ram can never stand for oppression and injustice”.
Another Congress leader who went on an overdrive was former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, who said that he would be organising Hanuman Chalisa paath to commemorate the Bhoomi Pujan. He even announced that the MP Congress has raised money to donate silver bricks for the temple.
Other Congress chief ministers, like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, all hailed the Bhoomi Pujan.
The enthusiasm of the Madhya Pradesh Congress appears to be connected to the upcoming by-elections in the state, necessitated by the rebellion of over 20 MLAs loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia.
In Uttar Pradesh, it’s a slightly more complex strategy for the Congress. By playing the Lord Ram card, it is clear that the Congress, under Priyanka, is trying to expand itself by winning over BJP voters. It appears to be trying to woo Brahmin and non-Yadav OBC votes that are now the core vote-bank of the BJP.
On being asked if this could cost the party support among Muslims, party insiders say that the Samajwadi Party would still remain the first choice for the community unless the Congress strengthens itself among Hindus.
Like Rahul, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav chose his words carefully. He avoided mentioning the Bhoomi Pujan and instead expressed hope that people would follow “Lord Ram’s path of inclusiveness”.
This appears to be an attempt to play it safe and not risk alienating any section. The SP has been the first choice for Muslim voters in UP for the past three decades now, especially after Mulayam Singh Yadav took the Ram Mandir agitation head-on.
It seems Akhilesh doesn’t want to lose support of minorities – which explains his reluctance to hail the Bhoomi Pujan the way Priyanka did.
But, his invocation of Lord Ram and reluctance to mention Babri Masjid does stem from the fear that remaining silent would be seen as opposition to the Mandir and prove costly.
BSP supremo Mayawati avoided referring to the Bhoomi Pujan or the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Instead, she chose to give credit to the Supreme Court for paving the way for the construction of the temple.
An interesting aspect of her tweets is her assertion that Ayodhya is a place that represents different faiths.
Like SP, BSP doesn’t want to be seen to be supporting or opposing the temple. Mayawati’s emphasis that “Ayodhya represents different faiths” and that “it is unfortunate that it got associated with the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute” is interesting. It could even be seen as a way of tacitly emphasising the Buddhist part of Ayodhya’s heritage, one that got sidelined in the entire dispute.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee didn’t mention the Bhoomi Pujan or Lord Ram or the Babri Masjid and instead tweeted a message of communal harmony.
“Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian are all brothers. Our India is great. Our country has always upheld the age-old legacy of unity in diversity, and we must preserve this to our last breath,” she tweeted.
The tweet must be viewed in line with Banerjee’s decision to impose a lockdown in the state around the date of the Bhoomi Pujan. Many of those who wanted to celebrate the event have accused Banerjee of being biased.
The tweet, therefore, was Banerjee’s way of claiming that she would not compromise on communal harmony. On the other hand, silence on Babri Masjid’s demolition also means that she doesn’t want to antagonise pro-Mandir elements beyond a point either.
Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal also tweeted welcoming the Bhoomi Pujan and said that he hopes that the blessings of Lord Ram would bring prosperity and unity to the nation.
Again, like Priyanka and Nath, Kejriwal too seems to be trying to reach out to pro-Mandir voters. But, unlike them, his message didn’t go beyond a tweet.
Other than these parties, several other non-BJP parties chose to remain silent and not react on the Bhoomi Pujan. This includes the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nationalist Congress Party, Biju Janata Dal, YSRCP, Telangana Rashtra Samithi and DMK.
Curiously, even BJP’s allies like Shiromani Akali Dal, Janata Dal (United) and AIADMK didn’t comment on the event.
What About Babri Masjid?
With most Opposition parties choosing not to mention the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it was largely left to All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi to speak about it.
Owaisi tweeted that “Babri Masjid was, is and will always remain”. He also said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had violated his oath of office by laying the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir.
Appearing in several TV channels, Owaisi said that the event was a “massive blow to anyone who believes in secularism”.
The other party which spoke about the demolition was the CPI-M. In a statement issued on 3 August, the party reminded that the Supreme Court’s judgment of November 2019 wasn’t just about giving the disputed land to the Hindu side but it also mentioned that those responsible for the demolition should be punished.
Two Failures of the Opposition
The way in which much of the Opposition reacted reflects two fundamental failures. The first, as discussed above, is the failure to acknowledge the demolition of the Babri Masjid, without which laying of the foundation stone wouldn’t have been possible.
The failure to address this may further alienate Muslims, for many of whom the demolition of the Babri Masjid remains a deeply traumatic event. In the entire political spectrum these concerns found articulation only through Owaisi and to some extent, the Left.
The second failure is in creating a counter-narrative. In the run-up to the Bhoomi Pujan, no Opposition party was able to shift the focus to other issues or provide a counter-narrative.
The Bhoomi Pujan fell on the same day as the anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370. But, no Opposition leader was able to bring focus on the Modi government’s questionable Kashmir policy.
No Opposition could bring public attention to Chinese incursions in Ladakh or the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis either.
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