The BJP’s political ‘temple-ate’ for 2019, centred around Ram Janmabhoomi, throws up a challenge for the Opposition. But it also presents a conundrum for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Supreme Court’s decision to defer the Ayodhya case to January 2019, may well work for the BJP in creating scope for mass mobilisation on the issue. Hence, the effort to whip up public sentiment in favour of an enabling ordinance.
For the BJP, Ram Janmabhoomi carries a number of pros and cons. The big plus is the ease of mass mobilisation. Party workers are enthused and redouble their efforts, doubtless relieved to have ammunition with which to spike the Opposition’s guns. Polarisation of votes ensues as the Opposition strikes aggressively anti-Mandir postures to allay minority fears. In Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, this will certainly benefit the BJP.
On the other hand, there are several cons, precisely because the BJP is in power. First, it compromises the much-more-than-just-a-mandir-party perception that Modi has assiduously sought to cultivate. He came to power on the development plank and would prefer to keep it that way, conscious that the world is watching.
Second, voters may see the mandir as ‘misdirection’, a ploy by that electoral magician, Amit Shah, to deflect attention from pressing economic issues, which are the government’s Achilles Heel. The agrarian crisis, for instance, is so acute that the ‘man does not live by MSP alone’ message may not wash with farmers.
In the past, the BJP has deployed Ram Janmabhoomi sparingly and selectively, as a means to expand its footprint, rather than as the focus of an electoral campaign. In 1999, it was the Kargil victory that fuelled the BJP’s electoral success and made Atal Bihari Vajpayee the first non-Congress PM to last a full-term.
The 2004 re-election campaign ran on the ‘India Shining’ plank and in 2014, the mandir figured only peripherally in the election manifesto, under the ‘Cultural Heritage’ section. In fact, the promise to “explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya”, bound the BJP to abide by a judicial decision.
A numerically small but vocal section of the urban middle-class may perceive an ordinance on Ram Janmabhoomi as an abuse of power and a bill in the Winter Session as cheap theatrics. For its part, the BJP is well aware that an ordinance is subject to judicial review and will be hard to justify, given that the apex court is already hearing the matter.
The opposition, too, must tread lightly. In the unlikely event of an ordinance, challenging it on the grounds that it does not meet the criteria of immediate action and was intended only to bypass the legislature, may not work. The power to promulgate an ordinance is a legislative one, just as valid as that of Parliament or state Assemblies. It can be tested on constitutional merit, not on motive.
The Congress has wisely taken a nuanced position on Ayodhya, because of its troubled history on the issue. In recent elections, it has deliberately avoided polarising the electorate by presenting itself as pro-minority. But if push comes to shove and it has to take a ‘for or against’ stand, it is bound to follow its allies. The regional parties, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, have their own political compulsions and will have to take a hard pro-minority stance.
Ram Janmabhoomi has always been ‘Plan B’ for the Sangh, a backup if all else fails. The very fact that it has been brought into play in an election year will lead to speculation that the RSS believes the BJP to be on a weak wicket, electorally speaking.
It may also add to the impression that Modi-the-strongman has somehow lost control of the narrative, with the CBI and RBI in revolt and the government’s credibility eroded with respect to reining in corruption and NPA-ridden public sector banks. The PM cannot afford to be seen as spooked by a Rafale-mounted Congress, carpet-bombing the BJP with charges of crony capitalism.
That’s exactly why it may be counter-productive to play the Ram Janmabhoomi card now. The BJP-led NDA would do better to focus on streamlining delivery of social sector schemes and emphasising its performance in areas where it has done well, like energy and infrastructure. Even within the Sangh, a substantial section prefers the development mantra over the mandir.