Congress, BJP, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav: The Biggest Winners and Losers of Ayodhya's Mandir-Masjid Politics
Illustration by Mir Suhail/News18
Lucknow:In a historical moment, the Supreme Court on Saturday unanimously ruled that the 2.77 acre of disputed land in Ayodhya -- the flashpoint of religious and political tensions for decades -- will be handed over to a trust for the construction of a Ram Temple. However, a meticulous examination of the long-spanning saga that is the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is not complete without considering its far-reaching political impact. How in the course of more than 70 years since India’s independence the matter has redefined its politics and reshaped the fortunes of various political parties is a story of interest.
Over the decades, as the dispute gradually acquired the centre stage of national discourse from being a mere local issue at the time of Independence, it’s the Congress which emerged as the biggest loser. It paved the way for the BJP which rose on the kamandal (a metaphor for Hindutva politics) wave and the socialists on the Mandal wave (demand for reservations for the Other Backward Classes as defined by the Constitution).
Though the Ayodhya issue gained prominence in national politics only around 1984, back in 1949 when idols of Ram and Lakshman were placed inside the Babri mosque, the-then Congress government in Uttar Pradesh with Govind Ballabh Pant as chief minister had come under suspicion of going slow in handling the situation. Critics say the administration was seen as turning a blind eye to provocations from Hindu zealots.
It was probably the first of several incidents that gave strength to allegations of the Congress leadership being prone to politics of appeasement. However, observers say, at the time it was more a case of some within the party including Pant himself practising soft Hindutva rather than its national leadership. Records of written correspondence between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pant at the time are proof of this.
Nehru’s unease at the turn of events in Ayodhya could be sensed in his letter to Pant dated April 17, 1950. “I have felt for a long time that the whole atmosphere of UP has been changing for the worse from the communal point of view,” the PM wrote. “Indeed UP is becoming a foreign land for me.” In apparent admonishment for Pant, he further wrote, “It seems to me that for some reason or other or perhaps mere political expediency, we have been far too lenient with this disease.”
It is also a historically established fact that Pant during that era, facing opposition from socialists within the Congress led by the likes of Acharya Narendra Dev, had been flirting with soft communalism in order to cement his political position.
Whether the happenings on the intervening night of December 22-23 in 1949 were allowed to escalate with a purpose is not clear. But the fact that idols were placed and then through subsequent court orders a week later the main gate of the mosque was locked and Muslims denied entry, with the property being declared “disputed”, sowed the seeds of the controversy that would crop up three decades later to cast its shadow on the Congress.
The situation changed significantly for the party following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose Emergency in 1975. Facing a near wipeout in the general elections two years later, the Congress is said to have experimented with playing a soft communal card, in a bid to create a new electoral base. However, open overtures of trying to please the fundamentalists on both the Hindu as well as Muslim side came only after 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi took control of the party and became the prime minister following his mother’s assassination.
The government first tried to please the Muslims by overturning the Supreme Court order in the well-known Shah Bano case. In April 1978, the 62-year-old Muslim woman filed a petition in court demanding alimony or maintenance from her divorced husband Mohammed Ahmad Khan, a renowned lawyer in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The Supreme Court, in 1985, ruled that the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) applies to all Indian citizens regardless of their religion, and that it applied in Shah Bano’s case too. The Congress government, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, overturned the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 1986 by passing the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act).
In doing so, the administration made it apparent that it was under pressure from Islamic clerics and fundamentalists, and bowed down to demands of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. This infuriated a large section of the majority Hindu community. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – who by then had started making strong noises on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue – got ammunition to target the Congress, calling it “anti-Hindu”.
Faced with a backlash, the Rajiv Gandhi government made another misjudgment: in an attempt at a balancing act it opened the locks on the Babri Masjid. Though the orders came from the district judge of Faizabad in 1986, analysts say circumstances and occurrences at the time established beyond doubt that things were happening with larger political consent.
Once the locks were opened, the Ram Mandir movement gained impetus with Hindutva forces launching a no-holds-barred campaign for it. The push culminated in the demolition of the mosque by right-wing activists on December 6, 1992.
Even the Congress government at the time under Prime Minister PV Narashima Rao was blamed by critics for not acting with its full might to ensure the safety of the mosque. Though no concrete evidence of this has been found, the party has not been able to shake this perception.
No doubt the blunders and experiments with playing the communal card on either side did not benefit the party. While Muslims were left antagonised by the Congress’s alleged role in ceding space to the Hindutva proponents over the years, a large section of Hindus gravitated towards the BJP. A further blow was dealt to it with a surge in caste-based politics following the Mandal Commission report on reservation.
Founded in 1980, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was initially more a reboot of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh that existed from 1951 to 1977. From 1949 to 1980 even as the national political spectrum remained dominated by the Congress, the RSS and its initial political formation, the Jana Sangh, continued with their socio-political expansion based on principles of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva.
Though, during this period Ram Janmabhoomi and Ayodhya were not the focal point of the two outfits, groundwork in terms of extending support to those involved with the agitation was being carried out. Things took a decisive turn in 1984, following the Congress’s stunning victory in the general elections, riding a sympathy wave triggered by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The BJP’s strategy of moderate Hindutva since its inception in 1980 had not paid much dividend as it won just two Lok Sabha seats in 1984.
The saffron party then made a pivotal move. The same year, while RSS affiliate Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) launched a campaign for construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, Lal Krishna Advani was brought in as president of the BJP. The party under hardliner Advani committed itself to the Ram Mandir cause.
The next five years witnessed massive political turmoil. The opening of the locks to the Babri Masjid gave further momentum to the BJP, which claimed the government decision was prompted by the pressure of large-scale public opinion. As shilanyas and shilapujan programmes were organised across the country, symbolising laying of the temple’s foundation, the party was successful in spinning the national discourse around the ideology of Hindutva. And the move paid off. In the 1989 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP increased its tally from two in the previous elections to 85.
This further fueled the party’s ambitions and desire to increase its political clout. Advani embarked on the Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP. By the next parliamentary elections in 1991, the BJP was a party with 120 members in the Lok Sabha.
The demolition of mosque came in 1992. By then, the BJP had become a strong axis of Indian Politics. Since then, the party has been going from strength to strength. In 1999, the BJP and its allies formed a government that completed five years in office. It was the first non-Congress government to achieve this milestone.
Since 2014, a majority BJP government has been in power at the Centre. The politics of Hindutva in varying manifestations continues to propel it. Ayodhya and Ram Mandir may no longer be its clarion call of mobilisation, since the matter is sub judice, but the party has never denied that the issue remains close to its heart. It knows that Ayodhya and the Ram temple movement have been central to its advancement so far.
Mandal and the Rise of Socialist Satraps
Aside from the two major players, the Congress and the BJP, caste-based regional players particularly in the so-called Hindi heartland of UP and Bihar gained big through the turbulent developments in the heyday of kamandal politics.
Anxious to check the BJP’s Hindutva push, it was VP Singh as prime minister in 1990 who reanimated the Mandal Commission recommendations for implementation. The road was cleared for granting 27 per cent reservations to the backward classes in government jobs and educational institutes. The decision had a major impact on the country’s politics.
While the BJP saw it as an attempt to disrupt its Hindu consolidation strategy, the move had a galvanising effect in mobilising the backward groups on the ground. Riding the tide of this adulation were the caste leaders, who had so far groomed themselves in socialist politics. The political realignment that followed saw Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar rising to power.
Both these leaders chose to position themselves as champions of Muslim interests in their respective states, faced with a combative BJP and its Hindutva politics. While Lalu stopped Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990, putting him under detention, the same year, Mulayam as chief minister, ordered authorities to open fire on kar sevaks (right-wing activists) in Ayodhya. His claim, “Parinda bhi par nahi maar sakega (no one will be able to reach the disputed site)” became one of the most controversial statements of the times.
So, with a brief yet significant intervention in the course of events of the Ram temple movement, both Mulayam and Lalu created a lasting combination of Hindu backward groups and Muslims, one that stoked their ambitions of electoral power for years to come.