Ayodhya verdict: Rajiv Gandhi opened lock, saffron got the key

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In the complex world of Indian politics, the BJP rules today. The dominant force in the NDA alliance bagged 303 seats out of a possible 543 in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The saffron party received 37% of the votes, a jump of over 6% since 2014.
BJP’s chief rival, Congress, got half: 19% vote share. The situation was the reverse, 35 years ago. Many young Indians today would find it hard to believe that under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress earned 49% of the votes and a staggering 404 seats in the 1984 LS polls.
The BJP, in contrast, picked up less than 8% of the ballot and was reduced to a single-digit party with just two seats in the lower house. What happened in the years between those two extreme verdicts is a slow but clear shift, from the centre to the right.
Social scientists and bureaucrats of the time believe that the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the late 1980s was central to the legitimisation and mainstreaming of the right in India, which benefited hugely from two of then-Prime-Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s political choices.
One, he nullified the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision to provide maintenance for Shah Bano, a Muslim widow who had been divorced by her husband. That decision was taken to pacify the Muslim conservatives who were agitating against the judgment across the country.
In his book, My Years with Rajiv and Sonia, former home secretary R D Pradhan recalls having a one-on-one conversation with Gandhi and telling him, “Mr Prime Minister, you are facing a difficult situation, but I feel that you are the natural leader of the Muslim youth, boys and girls, as well as of all young Indians. Do whatever you want, but do not compromise your image as a young and progressive leader.”
Rajiv replied, “Pradhanji, don’t forget that I am also a politician.” The former bureaucrat remembered being “bothered” by those words. “Until that stage, he (Rajiv Gandhi) had risen above the level of the ordinary run of politicians. He had proved that he could be bold and innovative in tackling problems that had been facing India’s polity-…Now it seemed that he had become a prisoner of political compulsions,” he adds.
To balance the political slant and show that he was equally accommodative to Hindu sentiments, Rajiv then made his second major decision in February 1986. He unlocked the gates of Babri Masjid for Hindus to worship. Writing for The Statesman in May 1986, journalist Neerja Chowdhury said, “A policy of appeasement of both communities being pursued by the government for electoral gains is a vicious cycle which will become difficult to break.” Opening the locks didn’t appease the saffron brigade; it whetted its appetite.
There was now a demand for the construction of a Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir on the site of the Babri mosque. To broaden the movement, the VHP, RSS and BJP hit upon the idea of Ram shilas, bricks which were worshipped and consecrated across villages in various parts of India. These bricks were meant to be used for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Some suggest that telecasting Ramayan on DD in 1987 too was part of the outreach to Hindus.
“A large number of Hindus were politically mobilised. But it communalised the whole situation and Hindus and Muslims came dangerously close to confrontation,” wrote social activist Asghar Ali Engineer in the essay, “Hindu-Muslim Relations before and after 1947”.
In the 1989 Lok Sabha election that followed, BJP vote share rose to 11% and seats leapfrogged to 85. But some social scientists believe that the roots of the Indian right’s rise date further back to the 1970s. Political scientist Imtiaz Ahmad feels that the mainstreaming of the right-wing occurred with Jai Prakash Narain’s Bihar movement.
“Until that time, the RSS was seen as an untouchable in Indian politics. During that movement, they came close to the opposition parties because they had interacted in jail during the Emergency. From then on, right-wing forces began to assert themselves in politics. Advani’s rath yatra was an expression and a consequence of this. Rajiv Gandhi may be blamed for opening the lock, but that was incidental in my view. Even if the lock had not been opened, the right-wing forces were ready to galvanise and mount pressure,” he says.

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