It would seem as if the Congress Party were going for broke by rejecting the invitation quite aware that it is unlikely to win even the moderately right-leaning Hindu electorate, let alone the hard Hindu right, in the foreseeable future.
The decision of the Congress party, the principal opposition in India to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP, not to have its leaders attend the grand inauguration of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya is a calculated political gamble couched as a stand taken out of ideological convictions. The party’s statement calling the much-heralded consecration of Ram’s statue on January 22 by Modi a “political project” by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). is factually accurate and along the expected lines.
At the heart of that position is the clear recognition that having the party’s president Mallikarjun Kharge, top leader Sonia Gandhi and Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury pass on the invitation would not significantly enhance or harm its electoral prospects. Both the BJP’s core Hindu base as well independent voters leaning towards the Hindu right would have treated the presence of the three leaders either as politically expedient or performative or both.
At the same time, not attending the event would not influence the opinion of a large number of Hindus who do not vote for the BJP. On balance, there did not seem to be much to be gained and lost for the party by the three attending the event or not.
A Modi show
What has been likely factored in the party declining the invitation is the view that taking part in the consecration would have made the trio seem like a guest appearance in what is essentially a grand Narendra Modi show.
As it is the Congress Party has been in the “also-ran” category since 2014, and it would have been counterproductive to be that again at what is undisguisedly a BJP triumph after a three-plus decades-long campaign. Not attending the event gives the party at least a theoretical chance of proving to the splintered non-BJP electorate that it wants to adhere to its ideological convictions.
"Religion is a personal matter. But the RSS/BJP have long made a political project of the temple in Ayodhya. The inauguration of the incomplete temple by the leaders of the BJP and the RSS has been obviously brought forward for electoral gain," the statement by party leader Jairam Ramesh said.
"While abiding by the 2019 Supreme Court judgment and honouring the sentiments of millions who revere Lord Ram, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury have respectfully declined the invitation to what is clearly an RSS/BJP event," it said.
Garnering Hindu votes
That statement rings unconvincing though against the backdrop of the 1986 decision by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had given the go-ahead for the opening of the Babri Masjid locks which had been in place since 1949 after his grandfather and the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had them put there. The decision to have the disputed Masjid unlocked was reportedly driven at the behest of Arun Nehru who was then the minister of state for internal security and a confidant of Gandhi. It was then said to be Arun Nehru’s way to steer Hindu votes towards the Congress Party.
Political speculation at the time was split. One said that Gandhi, still quite wet behind the ears politically, was not particularly plugged into the complex politics of the Babri dispute and was caught unawares by his cousin Nehru’s machinations. The other was that such a momentous decision could not have been taken without Gandhi’s sanction and he was involved in a plan to garner some Hindu votes via the key to the locks following a swelling Hindu backlash against the government overturning the Supreme Court judgement in a landmark case involving payment of alimony to a divorced Muslim woman named Shah Bano.
Eventually, Nehru was fired by Gandhi following an internal inquiry and it seemed that the Babri issue may have been pushed to the backburner. However, it again returned to the centerstage in 1989 amid signs that Gandhi was weakening in the face of the rise of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, once his finance minister and his eventual challenger as part of the National Front, where the BJP was a partner. That is when Gandhi chose to go ahead with the shilanyas or ground-breaking and foundation-laying ceremony at the Ram Janmabhoomi site.
Congress' political quandary
Against this historical backdrop, it is difficult to buy the party’s current position unless it publicly says that in the last three decades it has consciously rejected the approach that Gandhi took and has now returned to its original foundational ideas.
While some believe that the Congress Party is missing out on a powerful opportunity to rebuild some trust within the moderate Hindu right by not attending the event, it is seriously questionable whether in a society still deeply fractured along religious lines that argument holds. Notwithstanding the BJP-RSS spin that the event is a matter of national and cultural pride beyond party politics, it has come to be inextricably linked to the Hindu right’s assertive rise ever since the demolition of the disputed Babri Mosque structure on December 6, 1992.
It would seem as if the Congress Party were going for broke by rejecting the invitation quite aware that it is unlikely to win even the moderately right-leaning Hindu electorate, let alone the hard Hindu right, in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is futile to even attempt it and instead turn its political quandary into a thinly disguised ideological stance.
(The author is a Chicago-based journalist, author and filmmaker. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)