The year was 1989. The first general election in which the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) manifesto explicitly talked about reconstructing the Ram temple in Ayodhya. “By not allowing the rebuilding of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, on the lines of Somnath Mandir built by the Government of India in 1948, it has allowed tensions to rise, and gravely strained social harmony,” the party’s manifesto that year stated.
The year 1989 was in many ways the BJP’s chance at redemption after its predecessor Bharatiya Jana Sangh got its first shot of power along with its socialist allies after Emergency. In 1984, the party had managed to win just two seats in the parliamentary elections. The Congress, riding high on a sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, swept the country by winning 404 out of the 533 seats.
So, BJP’s redemption song in 1989 was going to be the Ram Mandir. With mandir on its mind, the BJP won 85 seats, and so began the party’s push for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, with none other than L K Advani leading the charge with his Rath Yatra.
The VP Singh-led National Front government that tried to throw a spanner in Advani’s Rath Yatra was derailed after the BJP withdrew support following Advani’s arrest at Samastipur in Bihar while galvanising foot soldiers for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The BJP’s egression from the National Front government set the stage for yet another election in 1991. The 1991 elections, widely dubbed as the Mandir vs Mandal elections, was perhaps when the Ram temple pitch in the BJP reached a crescendo.
Yes, 1989 was the year when Mandir found a mention in BJP’s manifesto for the first time. But its decibel still hadn’t reached the feverish pitch that came in 1991. The BJP’s electoral push was largely powered by the ammunition it had against the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. And Gandhi had given his principal opposition quite a few of them – Bofors, India’s humiliation in Sri Lanka and economic regression, among other things. The BJP minced no words while describing him in the run-up to the 1989 elections in its manifesto, “Everything Rajiv Gandhi touches ends up in a bloody mess. A man who waded to his office through the blood-soaked streets of Delhi will be leaving behind a gory legacy. This country is not safe in the hands of such a man or such a party.”
But by 1991 the BJP was selling itself to Indian voters as the only viable alternative to the Congress. And central to this sales pitch was Ram Mandir, firmly entrenched in the party’s strategy to make it stand out in India’s highly polarised political landscape. The party’s pitch was retrofitted appropriately in 1991 to tell voters that building a Ram temple in Ayodhya was righting of historical wrongs. To build a Ram temple would end the centuries old virulence and distrust between Hindus and Muslims. The party’s election manifesto read: “BJP firmly believes that construction of Ram Mandir is a symbol of the vindication of our cultural heritage and national self-respect. For BJP it is purely a national issue and it will not allow any vested interests to give it a sectarian and communal colour. The party is committed to build Shri Ram Mandir at Janmasthan by relocating superimposed Babri structure with due respect.”
The BJP’s attempt to storm to power on the back of such strong assertions of Hindu pride suffered a setback with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi after the first phase of polling. Election analysis of the time shows that following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, after the first phase of polling was held on May 20, 1991, the vote polled by the Congress in India’s most electorally crucial state improved by five per cent in the second phase. Riding on the Ram Mandir wave, the BJP won 52 of the 85 seats in Uttar Pradesh – almost half of all the seats it won nationally. This was a significant vindication of BJP’s temple politics. In 1989, the party had won just eight seats in Uttar Pradesh.
By the time the 1996 elections approached, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the ensuing communal riots had singed the nation. For the first time since 1984, the BJP introduced Hindutva in its electoral discourse and started expounding the concept of ‘Bharatvarsha’ as the true identity of a united India. In the background of the deadly post-Babri communal riots, the party sold Hindutva as a principle that alone could preserve the unity and integrity of India. In the party’s own words, Hindutva was “a collective endeavour to protect and re-energise the soul of India, to take us into the next millennium as a strong and prosperous nation. Hindutva is also the antidote to the shameful efforts of any section to benefit at the expense of others.”
For the BJP, the ultimate vision of Hindutva would be realised only after the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The BJP’s 1996 manifesto set forth the agenda: “We hold that only by recognising the limitless strength of cultural nationalism can the nation be moulded. When the BJP joined the movement for the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, it was to strengthen just these foundations. On coming to power, the BJP government will facilitate the construction of a magnificent Shri Ram Mandir in Ayodhya which will be a tribute to Bharat Mata. This dream moves millions of people in our land; the concept of Rama lies at the core of their consciousness.” A similar vision was set forth by the BJP in its 1998 manifesto as well.
The years of political uncertainty that followed the 1996 elections led the BJP on a different trajectory altogether in 1999 after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s infamous 13-day government failed to muster the numbers in Parliament. The Kargil war, largely perceived as India’s victory over Pakistan’s aggression with Vajpayee leading the charge meant that Hindutva and Ram Mandir were completely dropped from the BJP’s manifesto for the 1999 elections held a couple of months after the culmination of the conflict. The BJP’s cultural nationalism rhetoric of the past completed disappeared off the party’s discourse. For the first time since 1989, Ram and the politics of Mandir were relegated to the background in favour of words like administrative reforms, trade & commerce and price stability. From a discourse that sought to highlight the failures of the Congress party, the BJP now overwhelmingly focussed on its own model of economic metamorphosis that revolved around an ‘India built by Indians’.
But BJP’s economic model failed to woo voters. By 2002-03, India’s GDP growth plummeted to 3.8 per cent. The BJP government failed to arrest India’s rising unemployment rate. By 2004, unemployment rates were above 8 per cent – at the same level it was in the early 1980s. The Babri demolition and Mandir politics that had now faded from public memory found no resonance with Indian voters. Sensing that economic gloom would spell its doom, the party reverted to Ram Mandir – atleast on paper. The party re-affirmed its commitment to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya in the light of a judicial order to maintain status quo at the disputed site. The BJP’s 2004 manifesto stated, “As Maryada Purushottam, Ram is an inspiring cultural symbol of India. His birthplace in Ayodhya is also associated with the religious sentiments of crores of Hindus. The BJP remains committed to its stand that the judiciary’s verdict in this matter should be accepted by all. However, we believe that dialogue, and a negotiated settlement in an atmosphere of mutual trust and goodwill, are the best way of achieving this goal.” The BJP sought to re-sell itself through the ‘India Shining ‘campaign but failed to sell the proposition to Indian voters.
The BJP had no clear answer to what would revive its fortunes. The Congress was at the peak of its socialist powers from 2004 to 2009 with its various social sector programmes redistributing wealth to India’s rural population. This meant that the BJP wouldn’t get another chance of power at least till 2014. In 2009, when the United Progressive Alliance – 2 (UPA-2) government led by the Congress stormed back to power, the BJP had already reduced Ram temple to the footnotes of its electoral discourse. The construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya was now competing with other issues that the BJP wanted to project as preserving India’s cultural heritage. Now Ram Mandir was being spoken in the same terms as cleaning the Ganga, saving India’s thorium reserves, saving cows and calves, supporting religious monasteries, saving Waqf properties from illegal encroachments and preventing archeological sites from public vandalism. Hindutva as the party’s core philosophy that was last reiterated in 1998 failed to even a find a mention.
In 2014, the BJP’s election manifesto committee headed by Murli Manohar Joshi further diluted the Hindutva pitch in the run-up to the elections. Hindutva was never uttered. The BJP would now ‘explore all possibilities within the constitutional framework’ for the construction of a Ram Mandir. The BJP’s political whirlwind in the 1990s around Ram Mandir looked like having sailed into the doldrums. Instead, the quest of power now revolved around one man – Narendra Modi. Political slogans like ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ and ‘Ek Bharat, Shreshta Bharat’ now resounded in the party’s corridors. At the core of BJP’s new vision of India were administrative, institutional and electoral reforms.
Ram was spoken in hushed voices before the 2014 elections and the construction of his temple in Ayodhya wasn’t meant to be a vote generator for the BJP. But these were reiterations before the elections. Once in power BJP leaders and prominent personalities like Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath have openly projected the return of Ram rajya (rule of Ram). The BJP may not be shouting from elevated pulpits any more, but rebuilding a temple for Ram allegedly annihilated by India’s first Mughal emperor is not a dream the party wants to silently relegate to the background.