In actions resembling the mid-nineteenth century ‘Gold Rush’ in the United States’ western region, a bevy of political leaders of multiple hues have begun homing in on the temple town of Ayodhya. It suddenly appears that every adversary of the BJP wishes to board the religious gravy train to Ayodhya and other important temple destinations.
The recent decision of Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party chieftain and Delhi chief minister, to not just visit the city and pay obeisance at the temporary Ram temple structure, but also to announce the extension of the Mukhyamantri Teerth Yatra Yojna to include a free pilgrimage to Ayodhya, is just another proof of how the Sangh Parivar has successfully pressured adversaries to play ball on its terms.
Kejriwal’s visit came close on the heels of other AAP leaders’ visits to different states where elections are due next year, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand and is aimed at widening the party’s support base beyond Delhi. During these visits, AAP leaders visited important local Hindu temples to back up Kejriwal’s declaration of being a “Hanuman Bhakt”.
The Delhi chief minister is not alone in either visiting Ayodhya, or other important Hindu temples. There was already a noticeable turnaround in Mayawati’s posture. In the aftermath of the Allahabad High Court verdict of September 2010 when she was in power in UP, she disallowed boisterous celebrations and VHP programmes in the temple town because of fears of communal clash.
In contrast, in July this year, she deputed senior party functionary Satish Chandra Mishra to visit Ayodhya and accuse the BJP of making poor progress with the Ram temple construction project.
At a party meeting in September in Lucknow, the BSP leader permitted a fair sprinkling of saffron and several spells of blowing the conch shells besides publically accepting and displaying a trishul and an idol of Lord Ganesha, gifted to her.
This meeting was part of the BSP’s effort to woo the Brahmins in the state. In a major departure from the BSP’s tirade against “Manuvadi” forces, the new slogans included in the party’s armoury are “Hathi Nahi Ganesh Hai, Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh Hai” and “Brahmin Shankh Bajayega, Hathi Chalta Jayega”.
Not to be outdone, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra launched the Congress’ campaign for next year’s Assembly elections with a visit to Varanasi. She not only visited Kashi Vishwanath and other temples, but also performed ritualistic ceremonies and wore the tripund (three sacred lines on forehead made by sandal paste), tulsi mala (garland made up of holy basil leaves), rudraksh (dried seeds of stone fruit associated with Lord Shiva) and mauli (red sacred thread).
If this was not considered sufficient to showcase her religiosity, she also held a sword in hand when she appeared for the public rally in Kashi.
Priyanka even told the audience that she was fasting and started her address with a “Durga Stuti” and chanted “Jai Mata Di”. Her public display of Hindu religiosity is yet another evidence of the decision of the Gandhis to flaunt their Hinduness.
Rahul Gandhi has done so on several occasions, most famously in 2017 when he visited the Somnath temple during the Gujarat Assembly polls and allowed a party functionary to call him a “jeneudhari Brahmin”. In November 2016, when Rahul Gandhi hit the road in UP to campaign for the 2017 Assembly elections, he visited Ayodhya and paid obeisance at Hanuman Garhi.
Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav has also been on a temple-hopping spree for some time. Not just publicised visits to important temples across the state, but Yadav also installed a 51-ft-tall idol of Lord Krishna at Saifai in Etawah. Besides, the former SP leader did not just visit Ayodhya on numerous occasions, but in December 2020 he declared that Ram “belongs to his party as much as anyone else”.
These developments demonstrate that next year’s Assembly polls in UP shall be contested within the political parameters framed by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar affiliates. There are three questions that arise out of this newfound fondness for public display of Hinduism of the BJP’s opponents.
One, will these parties’ current swear in the name of Ram neutralise the BJP’s claim of being the only party that consistently campaigned for a Ram temple at Ayodhya?
Two, will this tactic relegate the temple issue to the background and force the polls on issues of Covid-19 management and other non-social issues like price rise, farmers’ agitation and economy?
Three, given that all parties, including the BJP, are repeatedly trying to reach out and mobilise support on caste lines, will next year’s election be fought on overarching issues, or will we witness an aggregate of elections, where the result of each constituency will be determined by caste calculations?
On the first issue, the BJP has the advantage of going beyond the Ram temple plank by raking up larger issues that are part of the Hindutva campaign. It has to be seen if the state government’s decision to charge those who allegedly cheered Pakistan’s victory in the T-20 World Cup with sedition, or Yogi Adityanath’s legislative push on inter-faith marriage and population control give BJP the advantage. The BJP is aware that for the moment, it will be tough for adversaries to back all Hindutva initiatives of the saffron party.
On the second issue, no one has any ready answer to why price rise, the crisis in personal economies of people and questionable Covid-19 management on part of the BJP governments, at the Centre and in the state, are yet to become dominant issues. Is this due to continuing popularity of the Modi-Yogi double-engine team, or is it due to the failure of Opposition leaders to pose themselves as serious challengers to the Lucknow throne?
The BJP’s stupendous success in UP over three elections — 2014, 2017 and 2019 — was a result of not just the overarching polarising situation but was also influenced by the BJP’s politics of welfare and the social coalition the party put together. Will similar factors be dominant during 2022?
At the moment, the scenario appears favourable for the BJP, not in small measure due to the likely split of anti-BJP votes between the fronts led by the SP, BSP, Congress and the AAP.
In recent months, it has become evident that Adityanath was unwilling to play a secondary role vis-à-vis the central leadership, as played by other BJP chief ministers. He is clearly of the view that in state polls, the primacy should be given to local leaders and not the top guns at the Centre.
His posture resulted in palpable tension within the party and the Sangh Parivar. But for the moment the leaders appear to have pushed their internal rivalries in the background. The crucial issue that has to be tracked is whether this uneasy truce would hold during candidate selection.
At the moment while Opposition parties are trying to position themselves in the BJP’s ideological half, the BJP has started resolving other matters that could prevent its re-election in the state. It certainly appears one step ahead of rivals.
The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. Views expressed are personal.