January 25, 1987, marked the beginning of a new phenomenon in India’s socio-political journey. Starting that day, the country used to come to a standstill every Sunday morning for the next 78 weeks as the state-run broadcaster Doordarshan started airing episodes of Ramayan. Its religious appeal primed the country’s populace even as demands for a temple at Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya grew. A year later, the BJP, which had only two Lok Sabha MPs back then, adopted a resolution at its Palampur national executive demanding the construction of the Ram temple. The fledgling party found its cause. On November 9, 1989, the shilanyas (foundation laying ceremony) was carried out at the site, and when Lok Sabha elections were held a few days later, the saffron party’s tally surged to 85, and it has not looked back since.
Thirty-five years after the shilanyas, Ayodhya awaits the grand opening of the Ram temple after a series of legal and political battles. The temple is expected to open on Makarsankranti next January, ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Nripendra Misra, chairman of the Ram temple construction committee, said that by December 31 this year, the garbh griha of the temple would be complete and Ram Lalla’s idol would be moved to his permanent abode.
The opening of the Ram temple will be a key element in the BJP’s narrative for its 2024 campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the prime mover behind the building of the temple, is likely to be the main beneficiary of the public sentiment built around the religious issue. The Modi government has delivered on two of its core ideological promises ahead of the elections―building the Ram temple and the removal of Article 370. The temple will find resonance in the Hindi speaking states which have remained the saffron party’s core support base. The new temple could also attract voters from the southern states, especially on the cultural and spiritual fronts, by creating newer linkages for social integration.
The issue is likely to reverberate during the assembly campaigns in heartland states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which go to the polls later this year. Elections are due in Karnataka and Telangana, too, and the BJP hopes the issue will work there as well. During the election campaign in Tripura earlier this year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had invoked building the Ram temple while attacking the opposition. The BJP performed well in the state and retained power.
“The excitement around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation benefited the BJP and now it is time for its final result. Whatever the party promised, it delivered. The BJP will gain from the temple construction and also when it is opened to the public,” said Badri Narayan, director, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. “The BJP will bring the temple into the campaign in an organised manner. Even if it displays the picture of the completed temple, it will have an impact on the Hindu mind. The main impact will be felt in Hindi-speaking areas, but it will not be limited to those areas. The people in the south are also religious; they may vote for regional parties, but they look up to the temple, and thus it will have an impact. Modi will be the sole beneficiary.”
The Ram temple will go beyond the symbolism of a Hindu deity to signal a larger message of cohesion and cultural synthesis. It is social engineering through invoking divinity. Based on Modi’s suggestion, the temple complex will have seven new temples dedicated to key characters in the Ramayan―Maharishi Valmiki, Shabri, Nishad Raj, Acharya Vashisht, Rishi Vishwamitra, Ahalya and Agastyamuni―who are revered by different castes and communities and in diverse geographic regions. Valmiki is revered by dalits, and so is Shabri. Surat has a temple dedicated to her, while the Sabarimala temple in Kerala is believed to draw its name from her. Nishad Raj is revered by the fishermen community. Acharya Vashisht was a Brahmin, while Vishwamitra belongs to the Kshatriya caste. Ahalya and Agastya have temples dedicated to them in various parts of the country. “The message is clear: maryada purushottam Ram is for all castes and communities within the Hindu faith. Shabri is an icon of the Musahar (rat catcher) caste. At the Jayapura village adopted by Modi, a temple dedicated to Shabri was built for the Musahar caste. This was done as a message to the marginal castes and communities,” said Narayan.
Similarly, Modi’s idea to link the Ram temple with the south through the use of gopurams―an architectural element found in temples in south India―aims to bring visual and cultural synchronisation across geographies. According to Misra, Modi wanted the Ram temple to go beyond being just a place of worship; he wanted it to be a place to show how society developed.
The BJP is all set to invoke the cultural linkages with the new temple as the building materials are sourced from many of the poll-bound states. For instance, granite has come from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and marble from Rajasthan. The Modi government does not want the young voters, who probably do not remember the UPA regime, to feel fatigued about the BJP rule. Building the Ram temple is one way to renew contact with young voters.
The BJP knows that development alone does not win elections. Often, an emotive issue is also required. The party realised it after its loss in the 2004 elections, despite the ‘India Shining’ slogan. When L.K. Advani became BJP president for the third time, he said the party was wrong in assuming a direct correlation between good governance and electoral outcome. “In the BJP’s voyage from the fringe to the centre of the political stage, we aroused many expectations, some extremely emotive. We were unable to fulfil some of those. The construction of a grand temple in Ayodhya was one such issue,” he had said.
Modi was part of Advani’s rath yatra where he learned to pick up the pulse of the people. Advani brought the Ayodhya issue to the fore of India’s political discourse with his rath yatra which was launched on September 30, 1990. The original charioteer may have faded away from the political scene, but the impact of his initiative has had a lasting impact on the country’s polity and national consciousness. It was Modi who fructified that dream.
While the Ram temple has been the BJP’s biggest politico-cultural project, it is also keen on developing other religious sites like the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Mahakal corridor in Ujjain and the Kartarpur corridor, in an attempt to deepen its engagement with the electorate.
“The Ram temple is not a political issue for the BJP. It is one of its commitments. The party always stood for due legal process given the fact that a wrong has been committed. The identity of Ram and what he stands for is part of India’s proud civilisational heritage,” said BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli. “The building of the Ram temple has been welcomed by all, including by those political entities who created every possible impediment when we tried to resolve the issue.”
An RSS insider said that apart from the socio-cultural aspects, the construction of such temple complexes were important from an economic standpoint, too. “They bring in tourists and pilgrims in hordes which helps rejuvenate local and state economies. In the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the government spent over Rs900 crore, which has already been recovered,” he said.
This means other political parties have no choice but to support it. Most political parties welcomed the Supreme Court verdict allowing the construction of the Ram temple. The Aam Aadmi Party led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, for instance, built a replica of the Ram temple in Delhi and organised aartis. It made electoral sense as the AAP managed to wrest the coveted municipal corporation of Delhi from the BJP, which was in power for the past 15 years.
The BJP’s weapons for the upcoming elections are welfarism and development backed by cultural and spiritual nationalism. The BJP has also been relentless in its attack on opposition leaders, with investigating agencies aggressively questioning and booking them on corruption charges. “Don’t you think action should be taken against them? People believe Modi when he attacks those indulging in corruption,” said a senior cabinet minister.
For the sangh, which has been at the forefront of the Ayodhya agitation through its front organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Ram temple is an important landmark for its formulation of Hindu rashtra. “The issue is not just of a temple, it is of Ram rajya, the ideals that Ram stood for,” said VHP international working president Alok Kumar. “There cannot be discrimination based on caste or community or economic conditions. We are not saying that Hinduism should be the national religion. All religions should get equal rights and be allowed to flourish, but no one should get more than others.”
Milind Parande, general secretary of the VHP, said the Ram temple would emerge as the primary temple of the country. “Hindus had to fight for the Ram temple for more than 500 years. It has laid the foundation for Ram rajya, which will be good for everyone,” he said. “The temple construction should not worry the minorities as it is a cultural work that is not against anyone. It assimilates everyone.”