IN REVERSE GEAR?
On October 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated the world's tallest Statue of Unity to the nation calling it India's reply to those who questioned its unity. It is ironic that a statue which was meant to unify has divided a country with some seeing it as Modi’s tribute to a national hero who did not get his due and others calling it a colossal waste of money.
Built at a cost of Rs 2,989 crore as the world's tallest -- surpassing China's Spring Temple Buddha that stands at 153 metres by 29 metres and nearly double of the 93-metre Statue of Liberty in New York, the 182-metre Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue has also led to demands for more statues.
Already some Bhartiya Janata Party leaders are promising a “grand” statue of the Hindu god Ram on the edge of the Saryu river while a grand statue of Shivaji (a statue taller that the Sardar statue) on land reclaimed from the sea near Mumbai is already underway.
Meanwhile, BJP leaders have been busy renaming towns and railway stations, wiping off all traces of the Mughal rule. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath recently renamed Mughalsarai as Deendayal Upadhyay Nagar, Allahabad is now Prayagraj and Faizabad has become Ayodhya.
BJP leaders in other parts of the country are making similar demands. Ahmedabad may be called Karnavati, the Shiv Sena demanded that Osmanabad be changed to Sambhajinagar and Ahmednagar to Darashivnagar, and a BJP legislator said if his party won Telangana, Hyderabad would become Bhagyanagar.
The changes in names in Uttar Pradesh is being seen by political commentators as the ruling party’s pushing its Hindutva agenda and wooing its hardcore Hindu voters in the most politically important state ahead of national elections next year.
It was the clean-sweep in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the highest number of lawmakers to the lower house of parliament, that helped BJP win its biggest mandate in three decades in 2014.
Political strategists say keeping its mainly Hindu base intact in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere would be crucial to repeat such a performance, but there are also concerns that the BJP’s divisive politics may harm the secular fabric of society.
Many leaders of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ruling party’s friend, philosopher and guide, are demanding the government issue an executive order that would bypass the Supreme Court so that they can build a Ram temple at Ayodhya. The religious site in Ayodhya is a sensitive issue for Hindus and Muslims and the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 had sparked deadly riots across the country.
Any development in Ayodhya may flare communal tensions between the Hindus and Muslims.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has said the union government was working on "various options within the ambit of the Constitution to build a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya".
He visited the makeshift Ram Lalla temple at the disputed site where once stood the Babri mosque which was razed in 1992.
The Chief Minister also inspected the site where a 150 metre tall statue of Lord Ram would be installed on a 50 feet pedestal.
"We have grand plans for Ayodhya and we are working in that direction," he later told reporters. He also announced that a shelter home for widows and orphaned children would be set up in Ayodhya.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha has announced his intention to bring a Private Member Bill on the issue of Ram temple, and dared the opposition leaders to support him.
"Will Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Lalu Prasad, Mayawati support the private member bill on Ayodhya? They frequently ask the date [as to when construction of Ram temple will start]. Now the onus is on them," Sinha said in a tweet.
He said a legislation for building a grand Ram Mandir in Ayodhya had been necessitated as the Supreme Court, which was hearing the matter, was taking too long to decide.
"How many days the Supreme Court took to give verdict on Article 377, Jallikattu, Sabarimala? But Ayodhya is not a priority for decades. It is a top priority for Hindu society," Sinha said.
Various Hindutva bodies, including the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have upped the pressure on the Modi government over the past few weeks to bring a legislation for construction of Ram temple.
However, BJP spokesman Sambit Patra said the BJP stood by its resolve to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya "through constitutional measures".
"Any bill which is to come in future is the property of Parliament. Commenting on that will not be fair. As for the BJP's resolve to construct the Ram temple, we have pledged since 1989 that we will, through constitutional measures, strive for the construction of the temple. We stand by it," Patra said.
Opposition parties said that the RSS-BJP was raising the Ram temple issue just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections to deepen communal polarisation and hide the "all-round failure" of the Modi government.
Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said the BJP has gone back to its old theme of Hindutva after failing on all fronts and reiterated that state-wise alliance would be the best way to defeat the saffron party.
He also said the Central government no longer talks about "achhe din" and the promise of development lies in a shambles.
"There is no talk anymore of development or jobs, or investment or higher incomes or growth. The only talk we hear is about Hindutva agenda.
"Soon after his election, the Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] appealed to the country to put all divisive and controversial issues under a moratorium for 10 years, and focus on development. The Prime Minister himself has resurrected the divisive and controversial issues," he said.
Chidambaram has alleged that all others from the RSS, to ministers, to minor functionaries of the BJP are talking and writing about divisive issues.
"At the beginning of five years, the promise is for development, jobs and money in every citizen's bank account," the Congress veteran tweeted.
"Nothing achieved, at the end of five years, the new promise is for grand temples, giant statues and doles," he said as he reminded Prime Minister Narendra Modi of his earlier promises of vikas [development], providing two crore jobs annually and bringing back black money stashed in foreign tax havens and filling up the poor man's coffer with Rs 15 lakh each.
The CPI(M) said: "The BJP had officially stated that it shall abide by the apex court judgment. It is now engaging in a volte face as the general elections are drawing close. By whipping up passions over the Ayodhya dispute and raising the demand for the construction of a temple, RSS and BJP aim to sharpen communal polarization in the country, which has horrendous consequences."
"The effort to consolidate the Hindutva communal vote bank in the run-up to the elections, apart from seeking to divert people's attention away from the all-round failure of the Modi government, poses grave dangers to our country's unity and integrity," it said.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor also accused the BJP-led Central government of using religion and statues as part of its agenda to distract the people from its own failures.
"When you ask why a Rs 390 gas cylinder today costs Rs 970 or why the Rs 3.70 tax levied on per litter of petrol by the UPA government is up to Rs 19.48, they [BJP] talk about Ram temple, Ayodhya, Statue of Unity and so on. These are distractions," Tharoor said.
"The erection of statues reminds me of old days of Roman Empire when people were distracted of their own oppression by circuses ... Thus spectacle becomes a substitute of the substance of the reality," he said.
Claiming the NDA government has failed to perform, the Congress leader said such spectacles suit the government well as they help in hiding the sufferings of people.
"This suits the agenda of a government that has failed to perform. When the government is unable to deliver, it is very happy to encourage debate and distractions," Tharoor alleged.
"The people and the media should move away from these distractions and focus on the realities. The Indian 'aam admi' [commoners] has been suffering for the last four-and-a-half years and all you see in the media are these stories," he added.
The Supreme Court has directed the listing of the Ram Janmabhoomi title suit to January 2019.
Political commentators say the BJP has forgotten that the reason it won the 2014 elections with full majority in three decades were economic, not religious, and the party may lose the 2019 elections for the same reasons. Even though the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi remain popular, critics say their aura has dimmed in recent years.
Opposition parties claim the Modi government has underperformed on many economic issues and by pursuing Hindutva in the short term, may damage India’s composite culture in the long term.
Even though many welfare schemes of the central government are working well, analysts reckon the lack of jobs across rural and urban India, rising fuel prices and falling rupee can hurt the BJP and Modi in the coming elections.
Opposition leaders claim a stuttering economy coupled with joblessness and exaggerated promises of ‘ache din’ and ‘vikas’ have the potential to turn the tide against the BJP. It has now been two years since demonetisation, a move that was largely seen as the government’s willingness to act against black money but seems to have backfired.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah recently taunted the ruling party saying that Lord Rama will not help the saffron party win elections.
"They're going to lose the elections because they think Ram will win them the elections. It's the people who vote. Ram does not vote," Abdullah said.
"These are all to create hatred in people. India does not need hatred. India needs to understand that we all have to live together ... whatever your religion. We all want to live with honour. It's the honour we are fighting for," he said.
He said that the BJP was running away from issues facing the people of the country, including rising prices of petrol and a weakening currency.
“Where are the 15 lakh rupees which they promised, look at the prices of petrol, look at rupee ... dollar is worth Rs 74 now,” Abdullah said.
Five states -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, and Telangana -- go to Assembly polls this year, before India holds a general election in 2019.
Recently, Union Minister Giriraj Singh said that no power in the world could stop the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. "No power in the world can stop construction of Ram temple because people's patience is running out for it," the Minister said in Nawada, his parliamentary constituency in Bihar.
He may be right. People are losing patience, but it may not be over the Ram temple in Ayodhya.