The Mandir moment as the Modi moment - Hindustan Times

The Mandir moment as the Modi moment

Jan 25, 2024 09:08 PM IST

After Ayodhya, the Prime Minister has a legacy to build on. Delivering on promises made after the consecration ceremony can be a beginning

In 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) patriarch LK Advani, amid a power struggle with his protégé Narendra Modi, almost dismissively referred to the latter as a “brilliant events manager”. A decade later, Prime Minister (PM) Modi has proved his “event management” mettle: The Ram temple pran pratishtha ceremony in Ayodhya was a religio-political spectacle of a kind that post-1947 India hasn’t seen, combining State power, religious fervour, media frenzy and popular sentiment. Perhaps, the closest parallel is Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, which propelled the BJP firmly onto the centrestage of Indian politics. Now, the consecration of the Ram Lalla idol promises to thrust the BJP and PM Modi into a dominant force for some time to come.

Ayodhya, Jan 22 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Pran Pratishtha' ceremony in the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, in Ayodhya on Monday. (ANI Photo)(ANI) PREMIUM
Ayodhya, Jan 22 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Pran Pratishtha' ceremony in the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, in Ayodhya on Monday. (ANI Photo)(ANI)

In a sense, the “Ram moment” is also a “Modi moment”, one that could secure his place in history. If successfully hosting a G20 summit led to the PM being projected as a “vishwaguru” by his supporters, the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the Balakot response to Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack conferred a muscular nationalist aura around his persona.

Now, the Ram temple ceremonies place Modi on another level, which is akin to a modern day Hindu king or a Hindu hriday samrat (king of Hindu hearts), whose appeal transcends traditional fault lines of a diverse religion. When the PM welcomes Lord Ram’s “ghar wapsi” from tent to temple and claims that 1,000 years from now people will talk about January 22 as a momentous date, he is invoking a sense of Hindu pride and emotion. When he rigorously performs all the rituals and goes temple hopping across the country with TV cameras breathlessly tracking his every move, he is consciously blurring the lines between State and religion and at least de facto, making Hinduism the unofficial religion of a Hindutva-fused republic.

In the Vajpayee era, the BJP steered the fine line between ideological convictions and political compulsions with coalition pressures forcing the Ram temple to be put on the backburner. Now, a comfortable majority in Parliament and a favourable Supreme Court order have given the Modi government the licence to fast forward the temple-building agenda, the timing astutely matching the election calendar. Which is also perhaps why the PM, disregarding any criticism, chose to lead the inauguration ceremonies with even the President and cabinet ministers staying away. Significantly, even Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat was only part of the supporting cast of the Modi-centric blockbuster. The carefully chosen audience of the sadhu samaj and VVIP celebrities were cheering the lead star in unison. It was the PM’s way of establishing his complete authority as the unquestioned and unapologetic Supreme Leader of a “Bharat” where “Dev se Desh, Ram se Rashtra” (from deity to country, from Ram to nation) is the new mantra.

But how will the headline-grabbing one-liners be translated into a promised “Ram Rajya”, a better future for all? For example, the PM’s invocation of Ram as a universal symbol is unexceptionable but how does it square up with Sangh Parivar street activists who have for years used the “Jai Shri Ram” chants to intimidate and threaten those who worship differently, and demolished the Babri mosque in 1992, leading to hundreds of deaths in the ensuing communal riots. The “weaponisation” of Ram as a majoritarian response to Islamic fundamentalism has created a toxic polarisation in which religious identity is an instrument to stir political divides.

If “Ram is not fire but energy, not a dispute but a solution”, as the PM asserts, then why does a bulldozer have to be used to short circuit legal processes and batter minority groups into submission? Why then are Hindu-Muslim relationships targeted as “love jihad” and Indian Muslims mob-lynched by gau rakshak (cow protection) vigilantes? Why has there been so little attempt at a genuine inter-faith dialogue or to encourage more Muslims to participate in public life? What was the need to break up and reduce India’s only Muslim-majority state to a Union Territory? Why has the PM been mostly silent on the continuing ethnic strife in Manipur? Why are Christian missionaries often soft targets for the Sangh Parivar?

If the Ram temple is truly intended to spark a new beginning and become a symbol of an all-encompassing “Ram Rajya”, then it must begin with the PM sending a firm message to all his cohorts that a non-discriminatory State will ensure equal treatment to all citizens with no fear-mongering or demonisation of communities. It cannot be that the Assam chief minister blames “miya” vegetable sellers for price rise or the Madhya Pradesh government frowns upon children being dressed up as Santa Claus in schools or hate speeches in Delhi that call for a social and economic boycott of minorities are met with silence or inaction.

This is an opportune moment for the PM to walk the talk. His third term is almost assured, a likely hat-trick that will make Modi the first PM since Jawaharlal Nehru to win three consecutive terms. His legacy, though, will be shaped by how he can live up to the lofty promises made in Ayodhya. Between 2002 and 2014, the scars of the post-Godhra riots made Modi a popular but divisive figure. Now, as he seeks to secure his legacy, he must rise above those divides: This is the time, as the PM who exhorts his supporters, for not only “vijay” (triumph) but also “vinay” (modesty).

Post script: Amidst the wide range of celebrities attending the Ram Mandir ceremonies, the three Khan superstars were conspicuously absent. Surely a Khan surname should not be a reason to exclude a troika that symbolises the uniquely inclusive nature of the Hindi film industry, especially when the BJP’s Muslim faces were in full attendance?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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