THE WEEK reports from Ayodhya: Religion meets development

BJP hopes the Ram Temple mania will help Modi secure a third term

PTI12_30_2023_000018B Revival mission: Prime Minister Modi greets the crowd during a roadshow in Ayodhya ahead of the inauguration of a redeveloped railway station and a newly-built airport on December 30, 2023 | PTI

Ayodhya is emerging from a time warp. Once a dusty town with poor infrastructure and a tumultuous past, it is on the cusp of becoming India’s foremost pilgrimage centre. At the centre of this transformation is the three-storey Ram Mandir―161ft tall, 380ft long and 250ft wide, and exquisitely carved in pink Bansi Paharpur stone from Rajasthan.

BJP-ruled states will fund pilgrimages to Ayodhya. More than 2.5 crore people are expected to visit the temple in the next two months.
Nehru had once described big dams as “temples of modern India”. Now, temples are actually becoming an intrinsic part of public policy in Modi’s New India.

Idols of Ram as a child will be installed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple on January 22, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence. The consecration will mark an epochal change in India’s history.

The infrastructure development has been rapid. An international airport, a world-class railway station with Vande Bharat trains from main cities, a new township, five-star hotels and highways would link the once-sleepy town to rest of the world. Prospects of fast growth in real estate and tourism have been attracting private investments as well. Ayodhya now faces the burden of changing fast enough to keep pace with the influx of pilgrims from across the world.

“Ayodhya was a magnificent city, full of wealth and bliss and at the peak of prosperity,” Modi said in a recent rally in the temple town. “We need to reconnect with the ancient identity of Ayodhya and integrate it with modernity.”

Ayodhya is likely to become India’s religious capital, its cultural significance far outweighing the electoral importance. “We are not comparing, but it is obvious that Ayodhya will be the world’s major pilgrim centre,” Alok Kumar, international working president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, told THE WEEK. “The temple gives a message of social harmony, removal of caste prejudice, dignity for women and annihilation of terrorism. The message is of positivity―of maryada, sheel, parakram (righteousness, good conduct and valour).”

The BJP aims to whip up a sentiment around the temple for a third term for Modi. The removal of Article 370 and the building of Ram temple are the two key emotive issues that the party will rely on in the Lok Sabha polls, along with its efforts to pull the votes of beneficiaries of development schemes. There are 104 crore registered beneficiaries of various schemes in the country, a constituency the BJP has nurtured. During the 2019 elections, the BJP polled more than 22 crore votes―37 per cent of the polled votes.

Opposition parties have accused the BJP of using the temple for political gains, even as they struggle to come up with a counter-narrative to Modi’s message of having delivered on both emotive issues. “Building a magnificent temple in Ayodhya has been an unfulfilled agenda for centuries, and particularly for the last few decades,” said BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli. “In the 1980s, the BJP articulated this as a clear mission, not as a political issue but as an ideological one…. The construction of the temple and its inauguration mark the fulfilment of a long-pending national desire. It’s a homecoming, in a sense that it brings justice.”

The BJP had turned the temple consecration as a key poll promise in the recently concluded assembly polls and won three states in the Hindi heartland. BJP-ruled states will now fund pilgrimages to Ayodhya. More than 2.5 crore people are expected to visit the temple in the next two months.

“The BJP banks on the sterling leadership of PM Modi and his performance-driven government,” said Kohli. “It believes in his positive agenda of creating a new India with a mission of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas, sabka prayas’ (together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust, and everyone’s effort). There is a new class of voters―the beneficiaries of the government’s positive initiatives, and those who take pride in India’s global and economic stature. This is the agenda that the people will vote for.”

PTI12_29_2023_000153B Modernity meets tradition: Maharishi Valmiki International Airport in Ayodhya | PTI

Modi’s exhortation to the people to light lamps in their homes on January 22, celebrations being organised by the sangh parivar in five lakh temples across the country, and TV channels airing plays and serials based on the Ramayan are all aimed at turning the temple consecration into a grand festival. To build up the Hindu sentiment, the VHP, which was at the forefront of the temple movement, will distribute “sacred rice” from Ayodhya to 10 crore households. For the RSS, the temple is a step towards integrating the Hindu community.

Ayodhya needs more than a temple, though. “There will be 50,000 people coming to pay obeisance every day,” said Alok Kumar. “Besides darshan, we are aiming for a total experience for the pilgrims, so that they be able to bathe in the Saryu, visit the 3D museum, watch different Ramlila [performances] in open-air theatres, [and visit] satsang halls [during their stay].”

Opposition parties are in a dilemma. It is hard even for those opposed to Modi and the BJP to ignore the inauguration of the Ram temple. Even as they accuse the BJP of politicising the event, opposition leaders such as Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray have made it clear that they would attend it if they are invited. The Congress has indicated that its leaders who have been invited―former president Sonia Gandhi and president Mallikarjun Kharge―may attend the function.

In an apparent move to counter the BJP’s mandir push, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is preparing for a follow-up to his Bharat Jodo Yatra―with an east-to-west Nyay Yatra, with a message of social justice. The contrasting messaging could get accentuated in the Lok Sabha campaign.

“The parties that are accusing the BJP (of politicising the temple issue) are the ones that chose to deny the existence of Lord Ram in an affidavit in the Supreme Court,” said Kohli. “They went out of their way to delay a resolution [to the dispute] in court. Today, they look the other way when their allies consider sanatan dharm as disease, or pass unacceptable statements about the Hindu gods and goddesses. They are the ones politicising it, not the BJP.”

The country itself has changed since the temple movement became part of public consciousness in the early 1980s. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had once described big dams―symbolising the infrastructure projects that a newly independent India needed―as “temples of modern India”. Now, temples are actually becoming an intrinsic part of public policy in Modi’s New India.

INDIA-POLITICS/TEMPLE City of lights: Devotees take pictures of temples on the banks of the Saryu in Ayodhya on December 29 | Reuters

A precedent was set during the reconstruction of Somnath Temple immediately after independence. Nehru was opposed to government involving itself in the reconstruction, which he termed as a project of “Hindu revivalism”. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, deputy prime minister and home minister, declared that the temple construction was a “holy task”. Mahatma Gandhi intervened to suggest that funds for it come from the public instead of the government. K.M. Munshi, a minister in the Nehru cabinet, became chairman of the trust to build the temple. He invited Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, to inaugurate it. Ignoring Nehru’s opposition, Prasad went ahead and participated in the pran prathisthan (consecration) on May 11, 1951.

Having laid the foundation of the Ram temple on August 5, 2020, Modi will now lead the Ram Mandir’s high-profile pran prathisthan to be telecast live across the world. It will be another concrete step in reimagining India through the civilisational lens. Modi has also led efforts to build the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Ujjain corridor, the Kartarpur corridor and the Char Dham corridor, and reconstructed religious sites to make them part of public consciousness.

Realising the importance of courting the sentiments of the majority community, non-BJP leaders, too, are undertaking key religious projects. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has pushed through the Rs3,200-crore Jagannath Temple corridor project. The state government has sent invites to more than 1,000 temples across the country for the inauguration ceremony on January 17―five days before the Ayodhya event. The corridor will cement the legacy of India’s longest-serving chief minister.

Sukhbir Badal, former deputy chief minister of Punjab, had made the Golden Temple heritage corridor his pet project. Though his party lost the polls before work on it was completed, the project could not be ignored by the subsequent government.

An able communicator, Modi has linked development with the reconstruction of religious places. “When Ram Lalla gets a temple, four crore poor people also got pucca homes,” he said in Ayodhya on December 30. He then juxtaposed the reconstruction of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham in Varanasi with 30,000 new panchayat buildings, the redevelopment of the Kedarnath Dham in Uttarakhand with 315 new medical colleges, and the construction of the Mahakal corridor in Ujjain with more than two lakh water tanks.

Interestingly, the BJP hardly had any role in the three key events in the build-up of the Ram temple movement―the placing of the idol in the Babri Masjid in 1949, the opening of the locks of the masjid in 1985, and the telecast of the serial Ramayana in 1987. In fact, the first call to reclaim the Ram Janmbhoomi had come from former Congress MP Dau Dayal Khanna, who called for the “freeing of temples” in Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi during a VHP function at Muzzafarnagar in 1983. Present in the event were senior Congress leader Gulzarilal Nanda and RSS leader Rajendra Singh, who later became RSS chief.

Sensing that the issue had the potential to turn into a mass movement, the BJP made it part of its election manifesto in the 1989 polls. The efficacy of it was soon revealed―the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally zoomed from just two in 1984 to 85 in 1989, and 120 in 1991. The party also won absolute majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls in 1991. BJP leader L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990, in which Modi also participated, marked a turning point in the temple movement and helped the BJP expand in the Hindi heartland.

“This movement was not the product or the work of the BJP. It was an evolution of history that gathered momentum and developed into a political movement,” said the party’s 1993 white paper that was published in response to the white paper brought out by the Narasimha Rao government after Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992.

“The BJP,” said the party’s white paper, “decided to support the Ayodhya movement a full six years after the movement had begun (in 1983) and after it had assumed mass dimension incapable of being politically ignored…. The charge that the BJP made the Ayodhya movement and Sri Rama a political issue is incorrect, and betrays a lack of appreciation of the cultural and integrative impact of Rama in India. What happened on December 6, 1992… is the fruition of 400 years of Hindu struggle to regain their holy place.”

As the BJP under Modi starts its 2024 campaign with favourable winds and an evocative message, the focus will shift to other disputed sites in Mathura and Varanasi. “The cases are not fought in the streets, but in courts,” said Kumar. “We have strong cases in Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura, and we are hopeful that the verdicts will be in our favour.”

During a book release function in 1990, Advani had made an offer to Muslim leaders that he would ask the VHP to drop plans for constructing temples on the disputed sites in Mathura and Varanasi if they voluntarily withdrew their claim over Ram Janmbhoomi. Since the offer was not accepted, the VHP feels that the disputed sites in Mathura and Varanasi should be reclaimed.

The Muslim community has accepted the Supreme Court verdict in the Ayodhya title suit. Awaiting the community now is a long legal fight over Mathura and Varanasi.