Aakar Patel | How Advani made the Ram Mandir possible taking the BJP to the top

Unfortunately for Mr Advani but unsurprisingly for the rest of us, the architect of the party's rise will not be able to lead the ceremony

The temple inauguration in Ayodhya closes a chapter in our history that many youngsters won’t know about, but the rest of us lived through. It concerns the BJP, the reasons for its rise after four decades of stagnation and the man who elevated and energised it.

In the last general election before it merged into the Janata Party, the Jan Sangh under Atal Behari Vajpayee, contesting in alliance with some other parties, won 22 seats. In the four earlier elections, it won only three, four, 14 and 35 seats, and never had a national vote-share of over nine per cent.

In its official history, the party describes the last Assembly polls it fought on its own: “In the 1972 Assembly elections (in states across India), Jan Sangh went to the polls largely on its own. It fielded 1,233 candidates and won 104 seats with an overall eight per cent votes. In almost all the states it suffered losses. For the first time since its founding, Jan Sangh could not improve upon its earlier performance.”

The party plateaued, and this became clear when it contested the 1984 general election on its own, winning seven per cent votes and only two Lok Sabha seats. When Lal Krishna Advani took charge of the party in 1986, he had never participated in electoral politics. He had been a journalist in the RSS magazine, where he wrote film reviews.

As a politician, Mr Advani was always a nominated member, whether in the Delhi Council or in the Rajya Sabha. He had no experience of mass mobilisation and, going by his autobiography (My Country, My Life) doesn’t appear to know how it worked.

The Ayodhya issue was actually launched by non-political groups inside the RSS, led by the VHP. At a UP meeting in 1983, Rajendra Singh, who would later become RSS chief, demanded the Babri Masjid be opened to Hindu devotees. In September 1984, the VHP began a campaign against the mosque. It received sufficient public response for the group to claim in 1986 they would forcibly break the locks open. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to pressure and his government told the courts there would be no law-and-order problem if this happened. The locks were thus opened and Hindus allowed into the mosque.

But the VHP didn’t stop with being given access to worship at the site: its goal was the razing of the mosque. In February 1989, at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, the VHP said it would lay the foundation stone for the temple in November. This would involve the making of bricks across the country and their being carried in processions through towns and villages to Ayodhya in November.

Till then, Mr Advani wrote, a few BJP members like Vijayaraje Scindia and Vinay Katiyar had participated in the Ayodhya movement in their individual capacity. It was not an issue in mainstream politics. In June, at the BJP national executive meeting in Himachal Pradesh, Mr Advani threw the party behind the issue. The BJP resolution demanded the site “be handed over to Hindus” and “the mosque built at some other place”.

Elections came a few months later, in November 1989. The BJP’s manifesto made its first reference to Ayodhya: “By not allowing the rebuilding of the Ram Janma Mandir in Ayodhya, on the lines of the Somnath Mandir built by the Government of India in 1948, it has allowed tensions to rise, and gravely strained social harmony.” It was a violation of the BJP’s own constitution, that on its first page and opening articles pledged it would bear true faith and allegiance to secularism.

A few days before voting, the VHP brought all its processions from across India to Ayodhya and laid the foundation stone next to the mosque.

Powered by its divisive, anti-Muslim demand, Mr Advani’s BJP won 85 seats, four times as many as the Jan Sangh in the last election it fought alone and over 40 times as many as Vajpayee delivered in his reformed and renamed party. Mr Advani had become the most successful political leader from the RSS and had found the recipe for electoral success.

He began to invest more in the issue that brought such dividends. The Congress lost its majority, and a coalition led by V.P. Singh took power with support from Mr Advani, though for only a short period. Three months after the election, in February 1990, the VHP resumed its mobilisation against the mosque and said it would continue the process of what it called “kar seva” from October.

The political escalation, according to Mr Advani, happened by accident. He writes in his autobiography that in June he was to visit London, and before he left, he was interviewed by the editor of the RSS’ Panchajanya, who asked him what would happen if the government failed to resolve the Ayodhya matter. Mr Advani told him the BJP supported the decision to begin “kar seva” on October 30, and if it was stopped the BJP would launch a mass movement.

“Frankly, I had forgotten about this interview”, he writes, when his wife telephoned him and asked: “What have you said? The papers here have reported it with blaring headlines: ‘On Ayodhya, Advani threatens the biggest mass movement in the history of independent India’.” Mr Advani adds: “The die had been cast.”

What happened with his rathyatra has been documented. Some 3,400 Indians were killed in the violence, and the polarisation brought the BJP to the doorstep of power.

As the temple is inaugurated, unfortunately for Mr Advani but unsurprisingly for the rest of us, the architect of the party’s rise will not be able to lead the ceremony and claim credit for his achievement.

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