There was an air of grim resolve at the yuva vichar mahakumbh, organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Lucknow on November 23 last. Over 5,000 youth from the extended Sangh Parivar-the Bharatiya Janata Party, its student wing ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) and others-had gathered in the Uttar Pradesh capital, for what was billed as a brainstorming session on key national issues in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. As the chief guest, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, rose to speak at the inaugural, there was sudden commotion at the venue, and out of the chaotic hubbub rose chants of: “Jo mandir banayega, vote usi ko jayega (Votes only to the one who builds the Ram temple in Ayodhya).”
For an organisation known for its disciplined cadre, the sloganeering in the presence of top leaders, including RSS joint general secretaries Dattatreya Hosabale and Krishna Gopal and UP deputy chief ministers Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma, was an indication of how politically loaded the temple issue has become for the Parivar. Yogi finally began his speech some minutes later, but only after senior RSS leaders intervened and calmed down the impassioned youth.
However, two days later, on November 25, when the RSS held rallies across the country to press for an ordinance on the Ram temple issue, the parent Sangh organisation was more accommodative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP (Hosabale, in Bengaluru, was an exception). Their attacks, Sangh insiders claim, were aimed more at “the anti-temple forces” and possibly the Supreme Court, for not giving the Ayodhya case hearings top priority. RSS leaders now say even this was part of a calibrated strategy to keep up the pressure on the BJP government at the Centre.
Significantly, the rhetoric on the Ram temple has been toned down a tad since then. Even Modi’s statement, in the rare interview last week, that his government would explore other options only after the courts have reached a decision, did not provoke the kind of reaction in the Parivar many thought his apparent contrariness might. Even the usually belligerent sant brigade mostly kept their peace. The RSS even issued a statement welcoming Modi’s stand. Rajendra Pankaj, national secretary of the virulent VHP, was unusually contrite: “It is the apex court that has to give priority to the temple issue. Its stand has been painful for the Hindu samaj. That said, we welcome the PM’s statement that other options will be taken up after the court option is exhausted. The VHP will take up the issue again at its dharam sansad (religious parliament) on January 31 at the Kumbh mela.” The VHP-RSS response this time has been in sharp contrast to the aggressive campaign against the BJP-led A.B. Vajpayee government in 2002-2004.
So why the provocation at the Lucknow meet? Was it all just an act, part of the agreed line after a hush-hush meeting on November 16 in Delhi between a top BJP leader, senior RSS and VHP functionaries and two prominent lawyers? The meeting reportedly discussed threadbare the temple issue while chalking out a strategy. At the end of the confabulations, the BJP leader apparently told the RSS and VHP constituents: “You raise the tempo on the Ram Mandir among the country’s youth; leave the rest to us.” Reportedly, sources close to PM Modi, too, have sent the same message to the RSS brass. To up the ante, Modi or BJP president Amit Shah may soon make a public visit to the disputed temple site in Ayodhya.
The new strategy, of course, is also aimed at raising public pressure on the apex court after Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi reversed the direction of his predecessor Dipak Misra, saying the temple issue was not a priority and fixed the next hearing for January 4 (on which date Gogoi said a three-judge bench will begin hearings on the issue from January 10.) Swami Jitendranand Saraswati, general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samaj , an indirect stakeholder in the temple issue, is quite critical of the court’s stand. “Justice should not only be delivered, but also seen to be delivered. By not giving priority to the temple case, the court may be acting against the very principles of jurisprudence.”
Modi’s latest stand has to be seen in the backdrop of the Sangh leaders’ belief that their case for a temple at the disputed site is so strong that if the court fast-tracks proceedings, a favourable judgment is only a few hearings away.
Raising the pitch on the temple issue, sources close to Modi and Shah say, would also help to justify the ordinance, should they finally decide to bring it. The BJP top leadership, though, is not taking any chances. Modi, in particular, is reportedly harping on the 1992-93 temple episode when the then Congress-led central government dismissed all the four BJP state governments in the country at the time following the Babri Masjid demolition. The BJP had failed to return to power in two states when polls were held after six months. As a senior party functionary says, “We have to first assess support for the issue among the people before taking the plunge.” Plus, Modi is keen that he and the party fight the coming Lok Sabha election on the strength of his good governance record, rather than an emotive religious issue like the Ram temple. The prime minister is also said to be wary of possible violence in the country over the temple issue affecting the party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Sangh affiliate leaders are unanimous that there is huge support for the Ram temple among the people at large. They cite the huge presence of youth at the dozens of temple rallies taken out by the RSS since November, four of which were reportedly attended by a lakh-plus.
They also point out that the official Congress spokespersons are shying away from TV debates on the issue. Says former BJP Yuva Morcha vice-president and political analyst Swadesh Singh, “The fact that senior Congress leaders are unwilling to face the media on the issue is the surest indicator there is fear that it carries weight among the people.”
Congress leaders say this is the right strategy, for any missteps might upset Rahul Gandhi’s calibrated ‘soft Hindutva’ line in the election fray. Former Union minister C.P. Joshi offered a chastening lesson in the run-up to the Rajasthan poll, when he said “only the Congress can build the Ram temple… the BJP will only exploit it for political advantage”. Joshi was reportedly pulled up for his statement by the party’s top leadership.
Modi and Shah and other senior BJP leaders still feel that support for the Ram temple issue is yet to get traction in urban areas, particularly among the opinion-building sections. A top BJP leader told india today: “The temple issue is not as live as in 1992, though it’s quite resonant in rural areas; in urban areas, we have to build the tempo.”
Even RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has conceded, while speaking at the rallies he recently addressed, that “for the government to bring an ordinance on the Ram temple, we have to create public support… because governments bow only to public pressure”.