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India – Calls for Ayodhya temple law mean it’s Ram bharose again in 2019

The growing clamour for a law to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya is reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s 1849 satirical aphorism: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The carefully constructed public symphony we have seen in recent days on the possibility of an overriding law to build a Ram temple means that as we head into election season in 2019, our politics is galloping back to the future in a deja-vu rerun of the halcyon days of the Ayodhya movement in the early 1990s.

The clarion call was first sounded by RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat in his Vijay Dashami speech on October 18 when he asked the Modi government to “expedite the decision regarding the ownership of Ram Janmabhoomi” and to clear the path for the construction of a temple “through appropriate and requisite law”. Bhagwat was drawing a line in the sand, as if almost anticipating the Supreme Court’s decision on October 29 to defer a call on hearing dates on the matter to an “appropriate bench” in the first week of January 2019.

The BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha then raised the pitch, announcing a “private member’s bill” in Parliament for a Ram temple, along with an emotive political dare to Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Lalu Yadav and Mayawati to oppose the idea. Then came the carefully calibrated statement by RSS sarkaryavah Bhaiyyaji Joshi, asking the Supreme Court to “rethink the matter” of the Ram temple as Hindus were feeling “insulted” that it was not on its “priority list”. As he put it: “Society should respect the court and the court should also respect society and its sentiments.” The RSS has put the ball firmly in the Modi government’s court, making it clear that it favours a Ram temple ordinance “if all other options run out”.

So, what does all this amount to? First, on legislation: BJP has a brute majority in the Lok Sabha but simply doesn’t have the numbers in Rajya Sabha to push such a law through. That is why a private member’s bill (legislation introduced in Parliament by any individual MP who is officially not acting on behalf of the government) has been mooted. Of course, the last time a private member’s bill became a law was in 1970.

The beauty of this stratagem is that it allows for a great deal of posturing. It raises the emotional pitch and political temperature on the Ram temple as we head into 2019, allowing BJP to ask the simple reductionist question: who is for Ram, and who is against?

For a party that has sworn by the Ram temple as an article of faith for almost three decades now — including in its 2014 manifesto where it promised to “explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution” to facilitate its construction — the inability to move on it despite the majority it has enjoyed in Parliament since 2014 is politically problematic when faced with its core ideological constituency.

While BJP spokespersons have been careful in their responses to the private member’s bill, reiterating their commitment to building the Ram temple within the constitutional framework, they have also made pointed allusions to the 1989 Palampur resolution when the BJP first formally committed itself to the Ayodhya project.

The relevant text of the Palampur resolution, passed by BJP’s national executive in June 1989, bears repeating: “The BJP holds that the nature of the (Ayodhya) controversy is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law…. The BJP calls upon the Rajiv Gandhi government to adopt the same positive approach in respect of Ayodhya that the Nehru government did with respect to Somnath. The sentiments of the people must be respected, and Ram Janmasthan handed over to the Hindus — if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer.”

It is in this context that we must see BJP president Amit Shah’s clear line on Sabarimala that his party “stands like a rock” with devotees opposing Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women and that government and courts should “issue orders that can be implemented”, not those that “break the faith of people.”

Let us be clear: Sabarimala is also a cipher for Ayodhya. The same logic on the primacy of faith as a fundamental right that works for the south Indian shrine, works for Ayodhya too.

If legislation fails, the temptation may be for a Ram temple ordinance — in a variation of what Rajiv Gandhi did to overturn SC’s verdict in the Shah Bano case — even if that route would be legally challenged.

Either way, the debate would firmly resurrect religiosity in politics, resetting the political chessboard. At a time when the government is facing questions on multiple fronts, it’s back to Ram as the dominant narrative for 2019.

TOI

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