Shikha Mukerjee | Modi has set his target, does BJP know where it's headed?

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the gruelling cross-country journey of the Ram Rath led by Lal Krishna Advani was political

The newly-created Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980 needed to establish its identity and begin mass mobilisation to serve its larger purpose of constructing a grassroots movement to establish its popular presence and to differentiate itself from the Jan Sangh. The strategy it adopted combined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mission of establishing a Hindu Rashtra, that is, an Indian State with an official religion, renamed as “Hindutva” to distinguish it from its predecessor, Hinduism, and using elections to power its politics.

The vehicle it boarded was the demand to build a temple where the deity Ram in Ayodhya, as the faithful believed was the city of his birth, and the likely capital of the ancient kingdom to which the prince Ram was heir. It worked perfectly to build momentum by raising the spectre of past Muslim oppression, because the site of the deity’s birth was in the popular narrative obliterated by a mosque built by the Mughal king Babur and justified the movement to assert Hindutva nationalism and combine it with religious rejuvenation. Winning elections and acquiring the power of the State to fulfil its agenda was essential.

That agenda is now achieved. The temple is built on the razed site of the Babri Masjid. The January 22, 2024 consecration of the 51-inch idol christened “Balak Ram”, to differentiate him from the nine-inch 1949 Ram Lalla metal statuette, completed the last but one labours that the BJP had set itself after it was created. The temple and Balak Ram, now “Virajman”, are solid proof that Narendra Modi’s guarantees do work; selfies can be taken and posted on social media by pilgrims to prove it.

The almost 10-year government of Mr Modi was the fulfilment of the BJP’s transformational agenda. He can declare that all the other boxes -- cancelling Article 370 and triple talaq, weeding out infiltrators from citizens -- on the checklist have been ticked. The gap between guarantee and delivery, however disappointing, does not cancel the task completed status of the list.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the gruelling cross-country journey of the Ram Rath led by Lal Krishna Advani was political. The consecration of Balak Ram by Mr Modi is equally political. The message that followed the opening of the temple was entirely expected; the lord in the persona of Narendra Modi shall preside over the State – “Dev se Desh, Ram se Rashtra”. Predictably, he went through his usual routines of ritual performance that combines a protocol derived from possibly ancient texts suitably modified to fit the routines familiar to millions of Indians who gulped in the weekly episodes of the B.R. Chopra serial of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The inauguration of the new Parliament was the dress rehearsal, with priests, chants and symbols.

Where does the BJP go from here? Narendra Modi’s target is set; to, at least, match the performance of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who served three terms. To build on the Ram Temple theme, Mr Modi contrived to patch a bit of the Ram lineage, Suryavanshi, to his commitments on climate change’s goal of Lifestyle for Environment by redesigning a solar energy scheme. Having installed himself as the representative of the people at the consecration, the next steps will to distribute munificence by raising numbers of “labharthi” beneficiaries to convey a sense of moving forward on the endless road to becoming “Viksit”, or developed.

The BJP, however, has a different challenge. It has to find a new set of goals to take it forward. Its lesser order torch-bearers talk of more mandir-masjid reconstructions, from the Gyanvapi in Varanasi to the Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura. The problem is that these are local missions confined to the politics of Uttar Pradesh. The other problem is, as Karl Marx once said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Simply put, anything that follows will be an anti-climax. Without its missions and slogans, the BJP is in danger of becoming a party with a past and nothing special to offer in the future. The synergies that powered the Ram Temple movement are missing.

Political parties without a popularly significant mission that keeps the masses engaged are always in danger of running out of steam. The Congress is a party that once captured the Indian imagination with its “Garibi Hatao” slogan, because it reflected the aspirations of the majority of citizens. The 2.0 version of the same slogan -- “Mera Bharat Mahaan” -- is remembered only by artists painting slogans on the backs of buses. Narendra Modi’s slogan of Amrit Kaal to be ushered in by the Amrit Peedhi (cohort), Viksit Bharat and the $5 trillion economy are another of his version of “Mera Bharat Mahaan”.

Governments, past and present, have failed in getting to the point of policymaking that raises the income levels of almost all Indians, that is the poor and the median income population, to levels that make it unnecessary for long-term extensions of the free staples Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana or mass housing schemes or free health services schemes that state governments have rolled out. The failure to establish social security is a fact, regardless of the mumbo jumbo that is spouted about India’s consumer spending and its global rankings.

By now it is perfectly obvious that Mr Modi is good at some things. He can galvanise the masses and hold out the hope of “vikas” that matches popular aspirations. His success isn’t the same as radically transforming the political terrain as the Ram Rath and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement did.

Establishing a Hindutva Rashtra is and is not a radical change. Having incrementally altered the character of the government and made religious identity an integral part of political discourse, Mr Modi and the BJP will find it hard to electrify and awe citizens by repeating its formula of majoritarian nationalism.

The repetitiveness of the message of Hindutva and now “Dev se Desh, Ram se Rashtra”, is not aspirational enough, not even for the devout, who will expect more, like becoming more affluent sooner rather than later. Winning the 2024 elections for Mr Modi and tinkering with the structure of governance – “One Nation, One Election”, hollowing out democracy by increasing autocracy -- are low hanging fruit that diverts from the fundamentals of delivering on the promise of Viksit Bharat, that in essence means poverty eradication. Past governments have failed. There is no guarantee that Mr Modi will succeed.

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