Therefore, when the vhp finally announced a schedule for the construction of Ram mandir at Ayodhya last fortnight—apparently disregarding the bjp's request to the contrary—it, surprisingly, seemed to be making things comfortable for the ruling establishment. The vhp's decree that all impediments towards construction of the temple be removed by March 12, 2002, and the land be handed over to it, and the expiry of the UP assembly around the same time is not a mere coincidence.
The strategy is clear; the agitation for 'mandir nirman' will be the highlight of the bjp's electoral campaign in Uttar Pradesh. There was, however, enough ambiguity in the vhp announcement to give the nda government some breathing space. The organisation had, in fact, backtracked on its earlier promise of announcing an immediate "final" date for mandir construction at the Kumbh dharam sansad. But vhp leaders refuse to concede that political compulsions forced them to stop short of serving a fait accompli to the Union government. Says vhp vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore: "If the government falls, let it fall. It is not our government. It is an nda government."
The Sangh parivar is also adamant that there will be no let-up in mobilising public opinion in favour of the mandir. Says vhp working president Ashok Singhal: "It took five years to finally demolish the Babri Masjid. And in the same way, it's important once more to awaken the religious sentiments of Hindus before we start constructing the temple."
Through the year the vhp/Sangh cadre will fan out through the state trying to revive an issue which had faded away from public consciousness in recent years. Singhal reveals that the movement will gather momentum in mid-September this year—almost simultaneously with the high-pitched campaign for the assembly polls. However, this is precisely where the catch lies and the way Singhal plans to conduct the movement could push the bjp's fate in any which direction. His plan is:
It's around then the bjp will have to do a tightrope act to ensure that its allies in the Union government do not desert them in the wake of increased communal polarisation over the mandir issue. It's probably in anticipation of this situation that the bjp as also the various parivar components speak in two voices on the issue. Says Pyarelal Khandelwal, bjp vice-president in charge of UP: "At no point has the bjp deviated from the nda agenda or the path spelled out by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee." Adds UP bjp president Kalraj Mishra: "How can we assume the vhp has anything to do with politics? It is sad that people fail to understand it's a social and cultural organisation." bjp general secretary Sunil Shastri insists the party has much more to offer to the UP electorate than Ram: "Many mass contact programmes have been chalked out, with chief minister Rajnath Singh having imparted a certain dynamism since he took over a couple of months ago." Singh has certainly been in the election mode from the day he took charge—organising numerous kisan panchayats and public meeting with traders and teachers in the districts.
The bjp leadership is aware that losing UP would be an unmitigated disaster. As it is, the party is in power in only a handful of states—Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and the two newly-created states of Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. Says a top party strategist: "It was after the bjp debacle in the Gujarat panchayat polls last September that the leadership considered reviving the Ram issue."
Yet there is confusion in the party over the efficacy of the Ram card. Some consider it a precarious and desperate policy. Home minister L.K. Advani, for instance, is ambivalent about the Ram revival. Party sources reveal that he had no idea that the PM intended to raise the issue last month. Even UP CM Singh is believed to be sceptical about its utility. The Ram temple has, in fact, become a bone of contention between the chief minister and state unit chief Mishra. While Singh evades all queries on Ramjanmabhoomi, Mishra is effusive on the subject.
During the meeting of the bjp's UP executive committee meet earlier this month, Mishra tried to pass a strongly-worded resolution endorsing the temple. Singh tried to block his move completely but had to relent before the sentiments of the other members. Eventually, an ambiguous resolution was passed which endorsed the temple through mutual consultations.
Now that the Sangh cadre has embarked upon 'jan jagaran' (awakening the people), the parivar will soon know whether there is any life left in the Ram card.
All this notwithstanding, the Ram issue has without doubt galvanised the rss cadre, which had grown disenchanted with the general mood of drift in the state and had also been adversely affected by some of the economic policies pursued by the Centre. But an upbeat cadre alone can't undo the damage done by the last few years of misrule in the state and dissensions.
The party is, therefore, in search of a miracle and they're hoping the vhp's invocation of Ram at this juncture could be that. But its attempts have had a bumpy start—it failed to mobilise other Hindu religious organisations in support of its temple plans. Even as the organisation announced its grand programme at the Allahabad Kumbh, other sadhus, sants and religious heads scoffed at what they saw as a blatant political ploy. As Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati, Dwarkapeeth's Shankaracharya, said: "What respect do they have for such things like the Ram mandir? The vhp only knows how to exploit people's emotions and confuse them." The question is whether the vhp will succeed this time around.