Using the Ramjanmaboomi campaign politically, the BJP rose like a phoenix to ultimately replace Congress as the largest political party of India by 1996. In 2017, BJP unleashes Hindutva agenda 2.0 with a plan to build Lord Ram statue in Ayodhya. Yogi Adityanath’s government has proposed to build a Lord Ram statue – if not the Ram temple due to court cases – in the holy city in what appears to be a wave of Hindutva 2.0. It will be of interest to see if the proposed statue helps the party weave a similar emotive magic for the party in 2019 as it did in the mid 1990s.
The BJP rode an unprecedented Hindutva-Ram Mandir wave to capture a space of prominence in national politics in the 1990s but despite the best efforts of the saffron brigade the construction of a temple in Ayodhya’s disputed site – where the Babri Masjid was pulled down by kar sevaks on December 6, 1992 – has remained an unfinished agenda.
After almost three decades of political journey – guided by the ideologies of the RSS, VHP and other Sangh affiliates, the BJP today finds itself in the most favourable position - with party’s governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh - to gather the pieces and deliver on its promise to the crores of Hindus who were made to believe that the party will ensure that the birthplace of Lord Ram gets its due makeover and legacy restored. While the dispute over construction of a Ram Temple continues in court, the saffron party seems to be in a hurry to create a buzz around the Ram Janambhoomi with an eye on the 2019 general elections and resurrect the Hindutva agenda.
In this context, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s proposal to build a 108-metre statue of Lord Ram on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya, not far from the disputed Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid site, gives credence to speculation that the BJP’s think-tank is working overtime to sway the Hindu voters, once again.
Adityanath, a firebrand champion of Hindutva, has officially justified the statue proposal by claiming that it will promote religious tourism. His successful conduct of a special Diwali celebration on the banks of the Saryu - with record-setting illumination of 1.71 lakh lamps in one go – is also being seen as a step towards the consolidation of Hindutva votes.
All the 10,000 odd temples in Ayodhya were also illuminated making the holy city look breathtakingly beautiful and spectacular during the special Diwali celebrations under Adityanath. In the short term, the Rs 200 crore statue proposal’s potential to yield electoral gains is likely to get reflected in the BJP’s performance in the municipal polls in Uttar Pradesh in November-December. The polls will also gauge the saffron-clad priest-turned-Chief Minister’s popularity.
Officials claim Adithyanath’s push for the mega statue at Ayodhya is also aimed at taping the 12 crore pilgrims converging at Allahabad for the 2019 Ardh Kumbh mela. Allahabad is the most popular religious tourism destination in UP, followed by Ayodhya which attracts 1.4 crore tourists annually. According to state’s principal secretary tourism Avanish Awasthi, the proposal on Lord Ram statue is modelled around similar structures across Bali in Indonesia. The proposal is part of a bigger – Navya Ayodhya – plan of the state government to redevelop the holy city. The Lord Ram statue proposal is also subject to clearance from the National Green Tribunal.
Apart from the statue, Ram Katha gallery and an auditorium in Digambar Akhada may also be built under the Navya Ayodhya plan, linked to the upgradation of tourism attractions in Uttar Pradesh. The Chief Minister has made clear his plans to bring Ayodhya at par with UP’s top tourist destinations such as Agra and Varanasi. Adityanath’s focus on tourist destinations like Ayodhya, Vrindavan, Naimisharanya and Chitrakoot, among others, will see these cities getting helicopter connectivity. Uttar Pradesh was ranked as the second most-visited destination with over 22 crore domestic travellers in 2013. In 2018, the number stood at 18.3 crore.
BJP being a party obsessed with building statutes, especially after the formation Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the proposed Lord Ram statue in Ayodhya does not come as a surprise. Modi had earlier laid the foundation stone for a memorial to Maharashtra icon Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Arabian sea. Slated to be 190 metres tall, the statue along with a pedestal and foundation would be taller than New York's Statue of Liberty that measures 93 metres.
The BJP government in Gujarat is also constructing a colossal statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel. The statue will be 182 metres tall and was announced in 2013 by Modi when he was then chief minister. In 2010, the BJP government in Himachal Pradesh unveiled a 108-foot tall statue of Lord Hanuman on Jakhu Hill in Shimla.
The BJP’s push for Lord Ram statue in Ayodhya is being supplemented with a conscious balancing act of keeping the state’s Muslims in the loop on the project. Ahead of the mega project, several rounds of discussions have been held with Muslim representatives, some of whom have responded favourably in true secular gesture. The Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board, for instance, has offered to gift 10 silver arrows for the proposed statue of Lord Ram.
The Board's chairman Waseem Rizvi has complemented Adityanath for the plan and agreed to his contention that the construction of the statue would put Uttar Pradesh on the world map. "The UP government's decision to erect a statue of Lord Ram is commendable. In keeping with the Ganga-Jamuni 'tehzeeb' of Awadh, these silver arrows will be just a token of admiration and esteem in which Shias hold Lord Ram," Rizvi wrote to the CM recently.
"The Nawabs of this region always respected the temples in Ayodhya. Even the land for Hanuman Garhi in central Ayodhya was donated by Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah in 1739, while the funds to construct the Hanuman Garhi temple were provided by Nawab Asif-ud-Daullah, between 1775 and 1793," said the representative of the Muslim sect that has also made great accommodative gesture urging Muslims to facilitate the construction of a Ram temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site. The Shia Board is one of the parties in the appeals pending in the Supreme Court over the disputed Ram Temple site.
The Opposition Samajwadi Party and the Congress are feeling uncomfortable about the CM’s proposal to build the Lord Ram statute as they dismiss it as a dangerous game plan of the BJP to consolidate Hindu voters. This Opposition parties are already criticising the state government for omitting the Taj Mahal in its recent tourism booklet “Uttar Pradesh Paryatan - Apaar Sambhavnaya”.
The booklet, published to mark six months of the Yogi Adityanath government, was released on World Tourism Day on 27 September. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tweeted against the CM and cited famous Hindi writer Bhartendu Harishchandra’s lines to describe Adityanath as "andher nagari, chaupat raja" (a blind ruler leading his state to doom).
The Samajwadi Party has also condemned the proposal to build the Lord Ram statue at Ayodhya. Party leader Ghanshyam Tiwari said, “The BJP lacks ideas and vision towards infrastructure, education, public health and is relying on hyper-religious agendas.”
The BJP sent a strong message to Hindu voters when it appointed Adityanath, a champion of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, as chief minister of UP. Within weeks of taking oath, Adityanath went to Ayodhaya and offered prayers at the makeshift Ram temple at the disputed Ram Janmbhoomi - Babri Masjid.
The visit in May came just a day after senior BJP leaders Advani, along with two other top party leaders, was charged by a Lucknow court with conspiracy to demolish the 16th century Babri mosque in December 1992.
October 23 marked the 27th anniversary of BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s arrest in Bihar’s Samastipur as part of his failed bid to take his rath yatra to Ayodhya in 1990 to demand the construction of Ram Temple. Three decades later, the dramatis personae in BJP’s chessboard appear to have changed - with Yogi stepping in – but the unfulfilled agenda of Hindu dominance at the birthplace of the Hindu god continues to drive the party’s political ambition.
Ayodhya and Lord Ram have been an inseparable part of BJP’s Hindutva politics. With the construction of Lord Ram statue in Ayodhya, the BJP is, probably, trying to test the water to assess the limit to which it can take the Muslims along while appeasing the Hindu voters whose several generations, especially in UP, have grown shouting emotive slogans like “Jai Shri Ram”.