Will Ayodhya be an issue in the 2019 elections?

Elections will be fought on a polarised agenda, but it will not be easy for the BJP

Whether Ayodhya matters to the electorate or not, it will be made to matter by the BJP-RSS combine and the Vishva Hindu Parishad in the run-up to the 2019 general election. The question is this: what will be the modality of foregrounding the Ayodhya issue in a context that is vastly different from 1992?

Ayodhya has been less about faith and more about a muscular Hindu majority that wishes to rule by bringing the Muslims into near-complete submission and denying them their legitimate claim of being equal citizens. The problem, however, for the Hindu Right is that Muslims no longer fit into that imagination of an aggressive or militant opponent; instead, they are a vanquished lot looking for physical safety and basic survival.

In search of an enemy

Militant Hindutva mobilisation today is based on the search for an enemy. Muslims have steadily become economically marginalised, socially ghettoised and politically less influential. In fact, in much of the north, Partition witnessed the migration of social elites among the Muslims, leaving behind the economically weaker sections amongst them. Today their plight is far worse than the Dalits and even the Adivasis.

In the context of a virulent mobilisation without a palpable enemy, the discourse around the construction of the temple raises the question of the viability of political instrumentality in stoking the issue before every general election and the demand that Hindus prove their faith. It is now about the ‘good Hindu’ and the ‘bad Hindu’. While Muslims face the threat of physical violence, Hindus have to prove their faith in a political arena that is far removed, and in deep tension, with Hinduism’s everyday spiritual and religious dimensions. The heat, therefore, has also turned on the BJP to prove its commitment to the issue outside of its political calculation, and the campaign by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is symptomatic of this. For the BJP and the RSS, if the issue is settled early, it becomes a non-issue for the election, and if they drag it for too long without efforts to actually begin the construction of the temple, there is the danger of the electorate seeing through their game.

The reality and the narrative

This is where the BJP and the RSS have to make the issue matter; the issue no longer has the kind of natural velocity that it carried earlier. This time around, high-pitched emotions have to be constructed; they are perhaps not readily available. It is here that the ability of the BJP and the RSS to construct a reality that matches their narrative will be tested. The ‘reality’ is constructed to suit the narrative through rumours, fake videos, street violence, the use of social media and by engineering riots. The ground for this has been prepared for quite some time and we cannot make sense of it unless we read the issue of Ayodhya, unlike in previous times of the Rath Yatra, not as a standalone issue but one that has the capacity to condense the various elements and narratives floating around. The turn towards a more militant Hindu mobilisation came with the ascendance of the RSS and the paranoid social imaginaries initiated by M.S. Golwalkar. Today that anxiety has been quelled after the massive violence following the Rath Yatra in 1991 and the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Whether the Hindu majority cutting across castes will perceive the links between the narratives that are far more complex than a simple-minded narrative of a Muslim adversary is a difficult issue to assess right now. But surely the elections are going to be fought on a polarised agenda. This will be an uphill task for the Hindu Right, however, given that the economy has been sluggish and there are shrinking job opportunities.

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