Ayodhya invite bullet ducked, but the smouldering fire in Congress not yet doused
To be fair to the Congress, the party had little manoeuvring room on the Ram Mandir issue given its shrinking electoral footprint in the Hindi heartland and how successfully BJP has been able to exploit the faultlines of polarisation
Having finally bitten the Ayodhya bullet, the Congress party now has the ominous task of explaining its decision to not attend the January 22 Ram Mandir consecration ceremony to a Hindu majority electorate while simultaneously countering the “anti-Hindu” taint heaped at it by a Hindu majoritarian BJP in the run-up to the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The stony silence that followed the Congress’s January 10 press communiqué announcing the combined decision of party president Mallikarjun Kharge, his predecessor Sonia Gandhi and the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, to “respectfully decline the invitation to what is clearly as RSS/BJP event”, finally broke on Friday (January 12) with Pawan Khera and Supriya Shrinate explaining their party’s stand.
The justification offered by Khera and Shrinate, head of the party’s media and social media wings, respectively, of course, wasn’t one of pristine ideological clarity that could potentially augment the Congress’s oft-avowed commitment to secularism. Instead, it was yet another faltering attempt at projecting the Congress and its leadership as more conscientious keepers of the Hindu faith as opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP.
The January 10 communiqué, issued by Congress communications department chief Jairam Ramesh, had asserted that religion was a “personal matter” but the RSS and the BJP had “long made a political project of the temple in Ayodhya” and then gone on to say that the “inauguration of the incomplete temple by the leaders of the BJP and the RSS has been obviously brought forward for electoral gain”. Ramesh’s statement added, “while abiding by the 2019 Supreme Court judgment and honouring the sentiments of millions who revere Lord Ram”, Kharge, Sonia and Chowdhury had declined the invitation to the consecration ceremony because it was “clearly an RSS/BJP event”.
On Friday, Khera and Shrinate’s long-winded explanations betrayed the nervousness within the Congress over what is, arguably, one of the boldest political decisions that the party has made in recent decades – besides, constitutionally speaking, being the right one. The submissions by the duo relied largely on four points.
The four points
First, reiterating Ramesh’s statement that the RSS/BJP combine had long made Ram Mandir a political project and the January 22 event was an extension of the same. Second, the scheduled pran pratishthan (establishing life in the idol of Lord Ram) was being carried out “in contravention of Dharma Shastras, which proscribe such a ritual in an incomplete temple” that the Ram Mandir, at the moment, is.
Third, the four Shankaracharyas – Nischalananda Saraswati of Gowardhanpeeth in Odisha’s Puri, Avimukteshwaranand of Jyotir Math in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath, Sadanand Saraswati of Paschimannaya Shardapeeth in Gujarat’s Dwarka and Bharti Teerth of the Shardapeeth in Karnataka’s Sringeri – too have “declined to attend the consecration violation of the Dharma Shastras.”
Lastly, that while the Congress’s top leadership had declined to attend the January 22 event, it had not stopped anyone from the party from visiting the Ram Mandir on that day or at any other date because “religion is a personal matter” and that “a political party or a Trust cannot decide who will visit the Ram Mandir and when”. Khera and Shrinate also stressed that a delegation of Congress’s UP unit has planned to visit Ayodhya to offer prayers to Lord Rama on Makar Sankranti and that, similarly, other party leaders are also free to visit the Ram Mandir at any time of their choosing.
The main crux of argument
Congress insiders told The Federal that the latter three submissions by the two top Congress spokespersons are going to form the crux of the party’s defence against any criticism coming its way for declining the January 22 invite. Sources also said that a number of Congress leaders are likely to visit the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya “in a staggered manner, individually or as part of delegations of various state units” over the next two months and that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s upcoming Manipur to Maharashtra Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra may also make a halt in Ayodhya next month when it spends 11 days traversing Uttar Pradesh.
The refuge that the Congress is seeking in Dharma Shastras and the veritable boycott of the consecration ceremony by the four Shankaracharyas to justify its leadership’s decision to skip the pran pratishthan and the likely beeline that its leaders are expected to make for the temple over the next two months shows that the party’s move to decline the January 22 invite has little to do with standing up to Hindu majoritarianism or to defend secularism.
It is, instead, a continuation of the treacherous shenanigans by the party that led the late Rajiv Gandhi to pave way for the Ram Mandir’s shilanyas at Ayodhya back in November 1989 and the late PV Narasimha Rao, as Prime Minister, to huddle into his puja room while a group of lumpens from the Sangh Parivar razed the Babri Masjid to the ground on December 6, 1992.
'Bleeding-heart liberals' who believe that the Congress, by declining the invite, has finally decided against playing the soft Hindutva card anymore and is belatedly shunning the egregiously injudicious path that it had been treading on the Ram Mandir issue for four decades now, may want to wait a few more weeks before jumping to such emphatic conclusions.
To be fair to the Congress though, the party had little manoeuvring room on the Ram Mandir issue given its shrinking electoral footprint in the country’s communally surcharged Hindi heartland and how successfully Modi’s BJP has been able to exacerbate and exploit the faultlines of polarisation in states that fall north of the Vindhyas. That the Congress was brave enough to say a polite no to the invite, knowing full well that it would be scorched as anti-Rama and anti-Sanatan Dharma not just by its BJP rivals but even by leaders within its fold, needs to be acknowledged.
Congress sources told The Federal that what finally convinced the party high command to take the decision it did, despite several key leaders urging Kharge and Sonia to attend the consecration ceremony, was the calculation that even if it did honour the invite, there was no way that Modi and the BJP would stop slamming the party for being anti-Sanatan Dharma.
Not falling into BJP's trap
“Had we gone (for the ceremony), Modi would have said Congress came out of fear of losing Hindu votes and the BJP would have gone to town shouting fear of Modi has turned Congress leaders from being anti-Rama to being electoral Hindus. By not going, we have at least isolated ourselves from that line of attack while also taking a clear ideological position that religion in a personal matter and the BJP can’t act a middleman between us and Lord Ram,” a Congress Working Committee member said. The CWC member added, “there are three months to go before the polls and while we know that the BJP will come all guns blazing at us for skipping the ceremony, we have time to visit the Mandir before the polls at a time of our choosing... that the four Shankaracharyas have declined to go as well and two of them have strongly slammed Modi for politicising Lord Ram is something we can and we are going to use to justify our stand”.
The party, sources said, is equally aware that by declining the invite it has given not just the BJP potent ammunition to attack it during the poll campaign but also a “convenient excuse” to any Congress leader who, The between now and the elections, wants to quit the party “for reasons that have nothing to do with our decision”.
“By the end of this month, we will have almost finalised our seat-sharing agreements with our INDIA partners and, possibly, even some of our candidates for the Lok Sabha polls. We are entering into that phase when leaders switch political parties on a daily basis because they are denied a ticket or because they think they stand a better chance of victory with another party or because their seat has been given to an ally or, as is now so common, because they are being targeted by some investigating agency... I can bet that our leadership’s decision to not attend the pran pratishtha will be cited by leaders who quit the Congress and go to the BJP over the next three months,” said a senior Congress leader who is part of a screening committee set up by Kharge recently to shortlist candidates for the Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress’s repeated emphasis on its leaders being “free to visit the Ram Mandir” as and when they wish, is meant to safeguard the party against dissent within its ranks from those who believe Kharge and Sonia should have gone to Ayodhya on January 22. Ever since Ramesh released his statement, a number of party leaders across various states have publicly disagreed with the party’s stand. Among these are the party’s in-house Hindutva peddler, Acharya Pramod Krishnam, once a key aide of party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, veteran Congress leader from Gujarat and Porbandar MLA Arjun Modhwadia and party stalwart Digvijaya Singh’s younger brother and former multiple-term lawmaker Laxman Singh.
Interestingly, while Laxman prophesised that the Congress will pay a “heavy electoral cost” in the Lok Sabha polls for declining the invite, the strongest defence of the party leadership’s decision came from his brother, Digvijaya, though replete with his own brand of soft-Hindutva. A voluble campaigner of Sanatana Dharma, Digvijaya, referred to the statements of the Jyotir Math Shankaracharya (who claimed that Temple Trust members like the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Champat Rai had said those pontiffs who do not belong to the Ramananda Sampraday need not visit the Ram Mandir on January 22), and slammed Modi and the Sangh Parivar for “creating divisions within Sanatana Dharma on the Ram Mandir issue”.
The sigil of soft Hindutva is ironically evident all over the Congress’s defence of its decision to skip the Ram Mandir consecration ceremony. The party’s overreliance on the stand of the four Shankaracharyas, who represent not just the four cardinal seats of Hinduism’s Advaita Vedanta tradition but also extremely orthodox and regressive ideas of Sanatana Dharma that justify and perpetuate the casteist Varna System, runs counter to the party’s stated commitment to liberal values and secular ideals.
Interestingly, the only party leader who has publicly backed the decision of declining the invite, but without raving and ranting about the Hindu Dharma Shastras and the stance of the Shankaracharyas, is Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. Speaking to reporters on Friday, while Kharge asserted that religion was a personal matter best left to individual choices, he stressed that the entire brouhaha over the Congress’s stand on the Ram Mandir issue was “nothing but a tactic to divert attention from the question of what Modi is doing for the people on issues of unemployment, price rise, India’s poor and poverty or about our border issues with China”.