The consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya scheduled for January 22 will set the political agenda for 2024. This is the grand culmination of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that has shaped the nation’s narrative for decades. From the temple movement of the BJP-VHP, the Rath Yatra led by L K Advani that resulted in bloody violence and riots and the unfortunate destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, this is a moment in India’s history that will no doubt have long-term repercussions. The prolonged court battle culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that a temple be built on the disputed site. Now it has become a game of political one-upmanship rather than a religious event. The secular credentials of India have been under severe strain for some time and never more so than now. Instead of it being a matter of people’s faith, the BJP-led political dispensation is making the temple inauguration a prestige issue ahead of the 2024 mega electoral battle. The temple consecration is being drummed up as one of the most significant dates of Indian history, with the Sangh Parivar equating it to the freedom struggle when India shed the yoke of British rule — in which, ironically, the saffron forces had no role to play. The Opposition parties have failed to develop a counter narrative, bogged down as they are by the compulsions of the Hindu vote and consolidating their caste base which has in a sense been usurped by the BJP. Only the Left has shown the courage to announce its decision to skip the temple ceremony with CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury slamming the government for turning a religious ceremony into a state-sponsored event for political gain. However, the Left parties have very little at stake in the upcoming electoral battle. And the Ayodhya discourse has little resonance in its southern bastion Kerala.
The government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are unabashedly promoting the event, throwing to the winds any pretence at secularism. The real architects of the temple movement — the mahants, the VHP and BJP leaders such as LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi — have been conspicuously sidelined to make this a Modi show all the way. It is very clear that Ayodhya will be the highlight of the poll campaign, with the BJP emphasising that the Modi government has fulfilled all its promises. Though the temple construction was a court-ordered diktat, the credit has been taken by the ruling dispensation. The abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the abolition of triple talaq and moves to reclaim religious sites in Varanasi and Mathura will all be touted as achievements of the government. Last week’s infrastructure push in the temple town with an international airport being opened, a railway station being upgraded and other projects inaugurated will ensure that the focus is squarely on Ayodhya ahead of the general election. The consecration ceremony itself promises to be a grand affair with Modi taking centre stage and re-emphasising his connect with the people. His role as the patriarch of the nation has never been more clearly delineated. A disjointed Opposition, meanwhile, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Not attending the ceremony will show it in a churlish light while marking its presence will hand over the advantage to the government. When ideology takes a back seat and political compulsions drive the narrative, it is difficult to adopt the moral high ground. Parties can ignore history and the death and destruction that preceded the construction of the temple only at their own peril. Now is the time for the I.N.D.I.A alliance leaders to put their heads together and take a joint decision on whether or not to attend the ceremony.
Meanwhile, in all the euphoria of the temple inauguration, the other party in the dispute is all but forgotten. The top court also ordered the construction of a mosque for which the UP government has provided land 25 km from the temple. Construction will not begin before May after the general election is conducted. Ayodhya itself is set for a makeover as it has been designated a smart city that will see a huge tourist inrush. Modi has urged people to light thousands of lamps on 22 January to commemorate the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple. In a secular country religion and politics must ideally be kept apart but in New India wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve is a badge of honour.