Modi and mandir: Hobson's choice for BJP

Amulya Ganguli

Narendra Modi may have performed with aplomb at his first appearance in Delhi after his election victory in Gujarat, but it is too early to say whether the pitch which the chief minister made for moving to the national stage will be successful.

The reason for the doubts lies in the events that unfolded several hundred miles away in Allahabad. After taking a holy dip in the Ganga, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh fervently called for the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, thereby reviving an issue put in cold storage by the party in 1996. In that year, after failing to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha, then outgoing prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that the BJP was shelving the three main points on its Hindutva agenda - constructing the temple, an emotional issue for millions of fervent Hindus, introducing a uniform civil code for all religions in India and scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

It was on the basis of this promise that Vajpayee was able to put together a coalition of 24 parties to form a government in 1998. Since then, the coalition has dwindled to only four members because many of the "secular" parties walked out after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The point is whether the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP will suffer another jolt because of Rajnath Singh's announcement, which has subsequently been endorsed by the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Considering that the RSS and the VHP are also seen to be in favour of Modi's candidature as prime minister, the next point of interest will be to see how the BJP manages to reconcile Modi's development plank, which pledges to encompass all the communities, with the polarising temple agenda. Or, whether it will try to ride both the horses at the same time even at the risk of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) walking out of the NDA. The JD-U has already said that the Ram temple is not on the NDA agenda.

One calculation of the Hindutva camp can be that Modi's candidature and a renewed emphasis on the temple will together be such a morale-booster for the BJP in northern and western India that it will be able to ignore the JD-U's protests. In any event, since the latter has clarified more than once that Modi is unacceptable to it as a prime ministerial candidate, it may already have one foot outside the NDA's door. The readiness expressed by the Congress to expand the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by it might be aimed at the JD-U.

It is too early to say whether the Congress will be able to take advantage of a rupture in the NDA. But, as the sudden execution of Afzal Guru, a decade after he was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court, shows, the Congress is gearing up for the forthcoming state assembly elections this year and the general election in 2014. If it can breathe new life into the economy, it can look forward to the contests with greater confidence than before.

Much depends on whether it will be able to woo back the "neo middle class", as Modi calls it, which has been drifting towards the BJP. If their diatribes on the internet are an indication, they are anti-Mahatma Gandhi, anti-"Italian" dynasty, anti-Congress and anti-Muslim. No one knows, however, how big this group is as a vote bank.

Besides, there is a basic contradiction between the tension-prone temple issue and a development programme with its concomitants of consumerism and social peace. A middle class, or any other group, which favours development can hardly be expected to go along with the whipping up of communal tension that is bound to accompany the revival of the temple agenda.

It is possible, therefore, that the BJP's efforts to repeat in 2013-14 what it tried in the 1990s will come a cropper. Had the choice of tactics been left to itself, the party may have to tread more carefully by being more accommodating towards the JD-U and the Shiv Sena. The latter prefers Sushma Swaraj as the prime ministerial candidate instead of Modi. It appears, however, that the RSS has persuaded Rajnath Singh, chosen by it to replace the scam-tainted Nitin Gadkari, to focus on the temple again. The BJP will be preoccupied, therefore, in the coming weeks with the twin issues of Modi and the mandir, an insistence on either or both of which can lead to the NDA's demise. It is a Hobson's choice for the BJP.

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