On November 9, soon after the Supreme Court decreed Lord Ram to be the legal title holder to his supposed Janmabhumi at Ayodhya, the Congress party rushed in to take some credit for resolution of the dispute. Two days later, the party top brass was seriously considering extending support to a possible government in Maharashtra led by the Shiv Sena; a plan not readily accepted as party chief Sonia Gandhi believes that the electoral price for such an alliance will be steep.
The two events—even if the latter did not reach fruition—may be unrelated, but they signal a political duplicity from India’s electorally beleaguered Grand Old Party that often accuses its nemesis, the BJP, of the same affliction. The party’s unambiguous endorsement for construction of a Ram Mandir at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid and the fact that it was considering joining forces with a rabidly right-wing Shiv Sena demonstrates a readiness for political and ideological compromises if they can assure concrete benefits.
This adoption of realpolitik has long been in the making, hastened now in the teeth of its existential crisis brought upon by electoral setbacks. The trajectory of the Ayodhya civil suit, which first reached courts in 1885—incidentally, the same year the Congress was founded—is also instructive of the crests and troughs that the party has navigated.
In post-Independence India, the first flashpoint in the Ayodhya dispute came on the night of December 22-23, 1949, when Hindu radicals surreptitiously placed Lord Ram’s idol under the central dome of the Babri Masjid. There is sufficient documentary record to suggest that prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was “dismayed and depressed” by that act. Between January and May 1950, he exchanged several telegrams and letters with party stalwart...