How the Ram Mandir Issue Has Unfolded Under Narendra Modi’s Regime

The BJP has been able to use constitutional institutions to intentionally or otherwise become the government’s propagandist arms in a straightforward sense.

Undeniably, there are profound political implications of these statements in the present context. All these statements are clearly aimed at consolidating Hindu votes in the wake of upcoming state assembly elections. The statements also help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) create a larger political narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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The BJP and its affiliates are also aware that the Supreme Court hearing next year can twist the political context of the poll-bound nation in interesting ways. Though they have largely maintained a welcoming tone for judicial interventions in recent years, they know the verdict might not necessarily be in their favor. For seizing any such favourable or unfavourable opportunity, they need Ayodhya to be a ‘talking point’. Bhagwat’s remark that construction of the temple is a “matter of national interest” was in many ways an attempt to set the terms of the hearing outside the court.

But, the most revealing part of Bhagwat’s speech is the emphasis on the need for a law to resolve the Ram temple issue. Though the demand to resolve the issue through parliamentary law is not new, it has certainly gained currency over the past few years.

This emphasis by Hindu nationalists is significant to understand how the BJP’s affinity with the issue has transformed in recent years. Delineating this question will help us understand what the demand actually stands for.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has claimed that the Ram temple is a “matter of national interest”. Credit: PTI file photo

VHP  begins nationwide drive

It all started with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) announcing a nationwide drive to collect stones for building Ram temple, just after the BJP’s victory in the 2014 general elections. The issue again made headlines in 2017, when then Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar said the court would act as a mediator between the two sides laying claim over the historic site in Ayodhya in response to a plea filed by Subramanian Swamy. Further, in a setback to the government, the apex court restored criminal conspiracy charges against the ruling party’s veterans L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti in the Babri Masjid demolition case in the same year.

It was interesting to note that Swamy spearheaded the Ram temple campaign in the Supreme Court by arguing that the delay in the case violated his fundamental right to worship. Though his provocative statements continued to appear publicly and fuelled a majoritarian political narrative, his intervention was largely seen as a legal battle over his individual right to worship. If this helped the BJP maintain a calculated distance from the entire issue, the tactical silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggests that political priorities of the BJP have shifted.

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There is certain truth in the notion that under the Modi regime, the BJP’s has not been as aggressive as one would have expected about the Ram temple issue. This is also reflected in the growing resentment of various Hindu religious groups with the Modi government’s reluctant attitude on the issue.

There are some understandable reasons behind the reluctance. Firstly, there is a generational shift in the party’s leadership and prominent faces of the Ram temple movement are either sidelined or have little say in party affairs. Secondly, Modi has managed to revive majoritarian issues in a new populist language. It sometimes helps to strengthen the perception that the party has departed from its traditional Hindutva base to the agenda of development and good governance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a strategic silence on the Ram temple issue. Credit: PTI

Using Ram temple in an opportunistic way

But a closer look at the developments of the past few years reveals something more interesting. The BJP has evolved a strategy of using the Ram temple agenda in an opportunistic way, as a result of which, it often seems neither insulated from nor associated with the issue. Maintaining this gulf enables it to negotiate between its hard-core Hindutva image and the development image.

There is certain truth in the notion that under the Modi regime, the BJP’s has not been as aggressive as one would have expected about the Ram temple issue.

A majoritarian condition, however, is subtly infused with this gulf to give it Hindu ideological orientation. For example, a section of the party’s leadership supports the construction of Ram temple as ‘property’ or ‘legal’ dispute requiring settlement in a consensual or juridical manner. But, they always lay a prior condition that the Babri Masjid petitioners should withdraw their claim first, for the sake of “communal harmony”.

In reality, the clamor to resolve Ram temple issue through parliamentary or juridical route is also indicative of a broader consensus that the BJP and its affiliates have been able to achieve on majoritarian projects in recent years. It is not merely a result of the party’s ascendancy at the Centre and its tightening grip over the functioning of democratic institutions.

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In fact, newly emerging political and social modes have allowed the BJP to use constitutional institutions in a way that they intentionally or otherwise become the government’s propagandist arms in a straightforward sense. One can recall former Chief Justice Khehar’s proposal of a negotiated settlement. While he said the court would act as a mediator, he initially did not take notice of the fact that Swamy was not a party in the case. He even went on to say that the mandir is an issue of ‘faith’ and ‘sentiment’, a remark which was received enthusiastically from a section of BJP leaders. The Supreme Court bench later, however, expressed anguish at Swamy for not revealing that he was not a party to the land dispute, but a mere intervenor.

Thus, the BJP, with the help of these emerging social and political modes has successfully derived a new political vocabulary which has legitimised its majoritarain projects in an altogether new manner. This new political vocabulary, as media scholar Arvind Rajgopal argues, is largely a result of structural transformation of the party’s social and political base. The manner in which the Ram temple issue has unfolded over the years and that susceptibility for juridical and parliamentary resolution has increased is symptomatic of this transformation.

Abhinava Srivastava is an independent media researcher and consultant at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.