Congress and BJP spar over Ayodhya as top Ram Mandir priest blesses Rahul

Congress and BJP spar over Ayodhya as top Ram Mandir priest blesses Rahul

"I am not a political person but just a ‘sant'," says Acharya Das; Bharat Jodo Yatra has got a virtual shot in the arm with his letter blessing Rahul

Ayodhya and Ram Mandir are, indeed, old news. But these are back in the New Year. Soon after Union Home Minister Amit Shah made an announcement in Tripura regarding the possible inauguration of Lord Ram’s new temple at Ayodhya on January 1, 2024, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge questioned this and, more so, the propriety of such a proclamation being made by a minister.

Congress chief asked whether Shah was a mandir’s priest, mahant, or pastor to speak like this. Kharge was addressing a mammoth crowd gathered at Panipat in Haryana on Friday to hear his predecessor Rahul Gandhi, walking through his Bharat Jodo Yatra. The yatra had started last September from Kanyakumari.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s walkathon ignites ray of hope in Kashmir Valley

Acharya’s blessings

But this new tug of war between the BJP and the Congress over Ram Mandir has come close on the heels of a recent letter sent by the head priest of Ram Mandir, Acharya Satyendra Das, to Rahul Gandhi. The main cleric of Ayodhya showered his blessings on Rahul and his yatra through the letter dated December 31, 2022.

das letter to rahul
Acharya Satyendera Das’ letter to Rahul Gandhi. Image: ANI

The BJP did not react to the letter until Shah went to Tripura on Thursday to flag off two BJP rath yatras to muster support for the upcoming assembly polls in the State. While announcing the date of inauguration of the new temple at Ayodhya, he blamed the Congress and Rahul Gandhi for delaying the temple plan and lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for clearing the decks for the temple and laying its foundation stone in August 2020.

Significantly, Shah’s temple salvo came within days of Rahul getting the blessings of the head priest. This was in response to the Congress invitation for Acharya Satyendra to join the yatra. The top cleric wished success for Rahul’s mission to unite India. This was not initially liked by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that fought for decades alongside the BJP for building a grand mandir at Ayodhya.

Kharge-Shah to and fro

Though BJP took a few days to bring back Ayodhya into public discourse and waited for Shah to raise this during his Tripura visit, Congress’ strong retort by Kharge came within a day of Shah’s remarks. “Shah goes to Tripura to tell Ram Mandir is being built and on 1st will be its inauguration. It is right since everybody believes in God, but why you make an announcement. As polls (for parliament) are in May (2024), you say 1st January is the inauguration date. Who are you to announce this? Are you a pujari of Ram Mandir? Are you a mahant,” remarked Kharge, drawing applause from the huge gathering at Panipat.

He went on to say “mukh mein Ram, bagal mein chhrui” to indicate of virtually the BJP keeping a dagger under Rama’s name so as to play a highly divisive politics.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra is crowd-puller, but political heft eludes Congress

Obviously, Kharge spoke from the strength that came to Rahul and Congress by the open endorsement of Rahul’s yatra by the Ayodhya temple’s chief priest. It is in this sense that the priest’s letter has turned out to be quite significant. The BJP has apparently not liked it and moved to assert or rather reassert its affinity, claim and right over the temple via no less a person than Amit Shah. He went on to blame Rahul for what the BJP thinks to be lack of warmth on the part of Congress for the cause of the temple.

Shah’s endeavour was to paint Kharge and Congress as anti-Hindu and pro-minority. On Kharge’s remark to his temple date announcement, Shah retorted that he was a custodian of Ram Temple as it was the BJP which won the case in court of law, unlike the Congress which was appeasing one section of the society.

It was on New Year’s eve when Acharya Satyendra wrote to Rahul extending his love and blessings. His short missive reads quite like from that of a priest: “May you be healthy and have a long life. The work that you are doing for the betterment of the country is in the direction of sarvajan hitaya, sarvajan sukhaya (betterment and happiness of all)… Prabhu Ram Lalla ki kripa aapke upar bani rahe (May the blessings of Lord Ram Lalla always be with you).”

Unlike Acharya Satyendra, Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has thus far failed to impress the BJP and other outfits like the VHP that share or co-share the same ideology. The Congress leader has consistently been castigating the BJP and RSS that as per him resort to hatred to polarise the society on communal and caste lines in their majoritarian overdrive. As UP has been hotbed of such BJP politics, the Congress is said to have been apprehensive about the UP leg of Rahul’s yatra. The exercise was kept as short as three days for UP and the yatra touched only those parts of the state that were adjacent to Delhi and Haryana.

Warm welcome

Yet, huge crowds turned up to greet and join the yatra as it meandered through the Jat strongholds of western UP before entering Haryana. UP’s state leaders, like former chief ministers Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav who were initially cold to Rahul’s yatra, responded by welcoming his move though without personally joining the yatra as it entered UP. But supporters of Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Jayant Chaudhary joined Rahul’s show in large numbers since Wednesday or January 4. So is the case with Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and other farm outfits that fell out with the BJP-led central government two years ago in the wake of controversial three new farm laws.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra enters UP, to thunderous welcome

bjy in up
Huge crowds have been turning up to greet and join the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Uttar Pradesh

It is in this backdrop that the Bharat Jodo Yatra has got a virtual shot in the arm with Acharya Satyendra Das’ letter to Rahul. The BJP first feigned nonchalance when the cleric’s letter came in public domain through social media. The BJP has always thought Ayodhya to have the sole stamp of the saffron outfits, courtesy its temple; and the public perception with regard to the upcoming temple also appears to be in tune with the party’s scheme of things. The BJP would not like this impression to be diminished in any way till the next parliamentary polls, to say the least.

But as per a newspaper report published on January 4, Acharya Satyendra had his own reasons for blessing Rahul. He said, “I am not a political person but just a sant. Whoever comes to me for blessing, I give the same to them. I know the people who came to me with the invite and who wanted the blessings for Rahul Gandhi and for the yatra, and I gave it to them.”

A state-level Congress leader from Ayodhya, Gaurav Tiwari, had taken the invite to the head priest, besides others. The Acharya instantly wrote back to Rahul and handed over the letter to Tiwari. It soon reached the Congress higher ups as intended by the priest and it was received with a feeling of vindication of sorts for the party’s yatra. The VHP, on the other side, took the step taken by the priest with a bit of reservation. A VHP spokesman said that though the Acharya was well within his rights to bless anyone, he should have thought a bit before writing the letter about as to whom he was going to address it to, implying that Rahul and Congress were not worthy of such a favour by the priest.

VHP’s reservations

“Being the priest of Ram temple, he should have first given a thought to the fact that these were the same people who tried to demolish the Ram Setu and questioned the very existence of Lord Ram. He should have thought of these things before giving his blessings,” rued the spokesman, adding his doubts about the blessings reaching where these were sent since only faithful could benefit from them.

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In contrast to this, a VHP old hat and Ram Janambhoomi Teerath Kshetra general secretary Champat Rai tried to make amends by appreciating Rahul’s efforts to “understand the country”.  Rai reportedly said on January 4, “Who has criticised the yatra … I am a worker of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Has anyone from Sangh criticised the yatra? Has the Prime Minister criticised the yatra? A young man is walking on foot and is trying to understand the country, this is worth appreciating. A 50-year-old is travelling 3,000 kms on foot in this weather. In fact, everyone should go on a foot march across the country to explore it.”

Obviously, the large saffron brotherhood has not been on the same page with regard to the Ayodhya’s main priest’s letter to Rahul and the parivar appeared to be confounded by it. Acharya Satyendra has not always been at the best of the terms with the VHP. Yet he has been the head priest for over three decades after his predecessor Mahant Lal Das was shunted out in March 1992 by the then Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in UP. Mahant Lal Das was murdered under mysterious circumstances in November 1993. He was fiercely opposed to the VHP and RSS. The Mahant was also a prosecution witness in the CBI case against LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and others in December 1992 Babri Masjid demolition case.

Thus, once again questions are being raised over the VHP’s absolute sway in Ayodhya and the temple that is being constructed there. The challenge seems to be coming from the local clergy though right now this may be in a roundabout way. As for the BJP, it is clear that that the main keeper of the temple under construction as also that of its makeshift version and, thus, the clergy led by him, is not in sync with the current ruling dispensation. It is in this backdrop that the BJP and Congress have begun sparring with the eyes on polls both in states and Centre that are spread over until the middle of the next year.

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