India’s Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) again is raising the issue of building a Hindu temple on the site of a Mughal-era mosque destroyed in the 1990s, a sign of electioneering ahead of national polls next year. Just over 20 years ago, a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, claiming Lord Ram, a Hindu deity, was born on the site. Since then, legal disputes between Hindu and Muslim groups that continue to drag on have stymied attempts to build a permanent Hindu temple to Lord Ram. The issue receded as the Hindu nationalist BJP, which in the 1980s and 1990s played a leading role in the drive for such a temple, realised that pushing the agenda alienated many voters, including secular Hindus and Muslims. Even when the BJP came to national power in 1998, it was unable to advance the temple construction due to concerns from coalition partners that such a move could spark sectarian violence. But the demand has never faded completely, as more conservative supporters of the BJP still back the proposed temple building. The party has renewed such calls ahead of national polls in 2004 and 2009. Last year, during elections in Uttar Pradesh, the northern State where Ayodhya is situated, the BJP again promised to construct the temple.
And now, the BJP’s newly-installed president, Rajnath Singh, is making a similar vow, likely with the calculation it will reenergise the party’s base in the run-up to national elections due in 2014. “It was our pledge and will remain our pledge to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya,” Mr. Singh was quoted as saying by the Times of India. Mr. Singh, who was attending the Kumbh Mela, a massive religious gathering of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh, said the party would do so once it came to power with a majority – a prospect which is unlikely given India’s fractured electorate.
Shortly afterwards, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a conservative Hindu organisation whose opinion is valued by BJP’s senior leaders, passed a resolution to build the Ram temple. The VHP has been one of the leading backers of the temple over the years and has passed many such resolutions in the past. Ashok Singhal, a senior leader of the VHP, said “Hindus have lost their patience” over the temple issue. The question now is whether Mr. Singh’s remarks are just lip-service to party dogma or whether the BJP’s leadership believes putting the temple issue back front and center will help them get back to power since losing to the secular-minded Congress party in elections in 2004 and 2009.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP spokesman, said that Mr. Singh’s comments were a reiteration of what is in the party’s manifesto. He denied the party was gearing up to use Ayodhya in the 2014 polls and instead would campaign on issues involving development, inflation, corruption and law and order.
“A section within the BJP want the Hindu votes to be polarised in their favour, and hence, have started to make noises,” said S.K. Dwivedi, a political science professor at Lucknow University in Uttar Pradesh.
“Taking a moderate stance over the last decade or so hasn’t given any political dividends.” Attempts to reach Mr. Singh were not successful. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP spokesman, said that Mr. Singh’s comments were a reiteration of what is in the party’s manifesto. He denied the party was gearing up to use Ayodhya in the 2014 polls and instead would campaign on issues involving development, inflation, corruption and law and order. “We are not a religious party,” he said.
Still, a look at the BJP’s 2009 election manifesto shows religious matters remain important to its cadre. “The BJP will explore all possibilities, including negotiations and judicial proceedings, to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya,” that election pledge said. The BJP has to balance its core vote-bank, strong in the northern Hindi-speaking belt, with the need to build a coalition from across the political spectrum. It was these more-secular allies that stayed the BJP’s hand from pushing the Ayodhya temple issue when it headed a national Government between 1998 and 2004. The BJP has not yet named a Prime Ministerial candidate to take the party into elections. A leading candidate, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat State, is viewed as an able administrator who has turned his State into an investment hub. But he also has faced criticism for failing to stop the killings of innumerable people, mostly Muslims, in communal rioting in Gujarat in 2002. That could make him unpalatable to some BJP allies that want a “secular” candidate for Prime Minister. Attempts to reach Mr. Modi were unsuccessful. He has denied wrongdoing in 2002.
Any move towards religious politics could be “disastrous” for the BJP, said B.G. Verghese, a political analyst at Center for Policy Research. For one, the BJP’s current allies could move into the Congress fold. ”BJP may gain some votes in the north, but would surely lose in most other parts as modernising Indian voters are moving away from such divisive politics,” Mr. Verghese said. Most Indians, especially younger voters, are more keen on riding economic growth in the country than getting caught in divisive politics, he added.
But the need to woo its allies does not mean the BJP can ignore “Hindutva” issues, or those prized by Hindu nationalists, said Narendra Kumar, Head of the Political-Science Department at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.
The party, he said, could be forced to “revive its Hindutva agenda”, to go with the development platform to woo voters. “They don’t have too much of an option. They went with just development in 2009 and failed miserably. So this time, the section calling for a return to the past may have their way.”
Political analysts say that despite a large percentage of voters having moved away from voting on religious lines, parties can’t ignore the fact that nearly 80 per cent of the voters in the country are Hindus, especially in the crucial State of Uttar Pradesh – which elects 80, or nearly a fifth, of the members to the Lok Sabha, or lower house of India’s national Parliament. In 1998, the BJP won 57 seats in the State; in 1999, that tally fell to 29; and it garnered only 10 seats in both the 2004 and 2009 polls.
This is where some in the BJP hope Mr. Modi could play a vital role at the national level – combining development while appealing to conservative Hindus, say analysts.
Mr. Modi addressed college students in New Delhi recently, stressing development as the “solution to all problems” in India. “His image alone could help bring in Hindu votes,” said Mr. Dwivedi.
Source : India Real Time