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Temple Politics

Temple Politics

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Hindutva is going to be the main plank of the BJP. Make no mistake about it. The signals are all over the place. The sudden clamour for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, changing of Faizabad’s name to Ayodhya, changing names which have a Muslim connotation like Mughalsarai and ratcheting up communal politics is a definite sign of the shape of things to come.

Gone is the development plan, the strategy to make India an economic power, create millions of jobs and create a new dream for India.

With Lok Sabha elections scheduled in May next year, the politics of religion is being whipped up to divide communities, voters and everyone else. You just have to switch on a television channel or open the pages of a newspaper to figure that out. Communal anger and hatred are being assiduously used by the Bharatiya Janata Party in a desperate bid to hold on to their support base that voted it to power in 2014. It had made loud promises of how it would fight corruption, lower prices, bring all the black money stacked abroad and generally give achhe din to the people.

As none of these have materialized in four years of its reign, it is now aggressively focusing on rekindling the Ayodhya temple issue, renaming cities with Muslim names and regenerating communal passion in its election strategies from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala. Suddenly, the Ram Temple and the Sabarimala Temple is dominating the political narrative. Senior union ministers like Uma Bharati and Giriraj Singh have loudly proclaimed that nothing can now stop the building of the Ram temple. Predictably, the chorus of the Hindutva brigade for the construction has got louder.

More than anything, it shows how a government with a strong mandate failed to do what it should have done in terms of governance.

Desperate voters fed up with inaction on corruption and incumbency had voted for the BJP thinking that another party would deliver better and deserved a chance. In 2014, the BJP promised a glorious era with Narendra Modi at the helm. Today, it is mouthing communal sentiments to win votes. The standard response now is that there is no alternative and so the BJP should be back.

If the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is any indication, it is quite clear that communal polarization and the Ram Mandir will be the main agenda on which the BJP will go into battle in the 2019 general elections. With every passing day, this seems more of a probability as the BJP has not done well in Karnataka and is unlikely to do well in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh that goes to polls soon.

Earlier this month, the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) called upon the Modi government to come out with a law that will help construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. After the Supreme Court said it would constitute a bench to hear the Ayodhya title dispute early next year, Manmohan Vaidya, general secretary of the RSS, said that the government must come up with a law to hand over land for construction of the temple as it was a matter of national pride and glory.

Clearly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the RSS and the BJP were angry at the stance of the court. Many leaders openly said that it was not a matter to be heard by the court as it involves religious sentiments. BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy wanted the government to come out with an ordinance so that the court will no more delay the matter or pass a ruling. The government had brought in an ordinance to push through the triple talaq issue.

If the Modi government brought in an ordinance that is not legally tenable and it gets stayed by the Supreme Court, it will still help the BJP. It can then tell the majority community that it did try its best, but failed because of the court.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that the construction of the temple is essential for the self-esteem of Hindus and called for a separate law that would help construction of the temple. VHP has said that it could not eternally wait for a court judgment and now a law has to be brought in to build the temple. Its activists set up a model of the proposed temple in Karsevakpuram and ordered trucks of stones that will be used to build it.  This is when the case is being heard in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the VHP is drawing up a game plan to hold public meetings before December 15 in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies seeking the support of MPs for passage of a bill that will help the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya even though it is being heard in court. This is also to drum up support for the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections. Both the government and the BJP have not made any public demand for the bill but it has allowed its ministers to speak in its favour.

As the temple controversy hit the headlines, burning issues like inflation, rising fuel prices, rising unemployment and fall in business activities affecting the economy were brushed under the carpet in the public consciousness.

To further up the ante, Rakesh Sinha, BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha, who is a RSS ideologue plans to come with a private member bill in the winter session in parliament on the Ram temple. It is unlikely that it will ever be passed as most private bills lapse but it will definitely put the opposition in a corner as they will have to take a position. It will be difficult for the opposition to oppose the temple construction as there are religious sentiments of the majority involved.

BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya denies that it is an election issue but is one of faith. But why has it suddenly come up at this appropriate moment to help the party gain some votes?

Modi’s development narrative died long back. It was at its aggressive best in 2014 and was solely responsible for his landslide victory. Remember how he never used religion in his campaign as he fashioned his campaign on a development plank wanting inclusive growth. His slogan, sabka vikas-sabka saath touched a chord even among non-BJP supporters. This time round, it might not be that easy to woo the voter. Four years ago, it sounded good as there was terrible cynicism that the voter was enveloped in. With his grandiose slogans tapering off, Modi has little to show. Communal polarization is the last straw to grab.

It may be politically right to say that the Indian voter is no fool as previous general elections have shown. But the reality of Indian politics has shown time and again that political parties have only gained with dangerous religious polarization. See what the Rath Yatra of L K Advani did to the BJP. See what the demolition of Babri Masjid did to galvanise the Hindu vote all over India.

Now, see what the BJP is doing in Kerala where it had a dismal support base. BJP leaders in Kerala whose names you might not have even heard once are now hogging the headlines as they rally popular Hindu sentiment using the Sabrimala temple example of not allowing women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the temple despite a Supreme Court ruling.

In fact, BJP leaders in Kerala openly announced to the media that they were adopting a strategy of supporting the temple tradition of not allowing women to plough into the electoral process for 2019. Kerala does not have a single BJP MP in the Lok Sabha. In the state assembly, it has just one MLA.  Amit Shah, BJP’s president, has been doing all he can to broaden the party base in Kerala not by talking about what the party would do to help Kerala see a better day but with his brand of communal polarisation. Kerala is one of the toughest states for the party to handle as it has always had a two party fight that has dominated politics.  The BJP cannot hide its glee seeing that its following has increased after it supported those who want to defy the Supreme Court judgment allowing women into the Sabarimala temple.

Last month, Janam TV in Kerala that is affiliated to the BJP took an aggressive stand against women wanting to go and pray at Sabarimala. It even carried fake news of how female activist Rehana Fathima carrying a blood soaked sanitary napkin made an attempt to enter the temple. This news was picked up by Union Minister Smriti Irani who asked if any Hindu woman would do it.  According to BARC ratings, Janam TV ratings suddenly raced ahead in the very competitive television scenario in Kerala making it number two while channels like Mathrubhumi and Malayala Manorama rallied behind. Communal sentiments are easy to exploit as we have seen in the last few years in various states.

Amit Shah went to the extent of saying at a meeting in Kerala that he would support those protesting against the Supreme Court order allowing women the right to enter the Sabarimala temple. As if he is an extra-constitutional authority, he asked governments and courts to give orders that can be implemented and not give ones that destroy traditions. India has not seen a party president talk like that. But he very well knows his constituency and where the new votes can come from. Clearly, the highest court of the land does not matter to him or to the party he represents. There has been no party reprimand for saying this as yet.

As many as 50 retired Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officers have in a letter to the President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Supreme Court, and the Election Commission demanded that action be taken against Shah for his “unconstitutional” speech in Kerala.  The letter said that the public speech of the President of the ruling party at the centre amounted to gross constitutional misconduct. It was worrying at a time when political discourse was touching a new low every day and it would have far-reaching adverse implications for our national polity, the letter said.

India must learn from what is happening in neighbouring Pakistan. We can now see how religious, far-right parties and groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan which were encouraged by the government is now having a stranglehold over the country and its politics. It all started when the Supreme Court in Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case. When a political party in India signals that decisions of the Supreme Court does not matter, we are treading on dangerous ground. The consequences will be of the order that we cannot even imagine today. Using religious sentiment to gain political power is very short sighted.

After a point of time, extremist elements and religion will control the state. We have already seen lynchings, love jehad and cow vigilantism kill many innocents. As politics in India touches depths it has not seen before, it is time to be worried. It will be educative to remember what Marin Luther King Jr. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

(Published on 12th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 46)