If you watch the news today, there are only two big issues in India: the building of a temple and the messy investigation looking into the suicide of a Bollywood actor. And both these issues seem to be linked to electoral politics.
The Sushant Singh Rajput case is being used by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its ally Janata Dal (United), to deflect from the growing unpopularity of the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar. The Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal opposition is so weak that attacking it alone won’t be enough. Hence, actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has come in handy for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Bihar to ‘deflect and rule’.
There’s a lot in Bihar that needs deflection: the unstoppable growth of the Covid pandemic, floods, the failure of its prohibition law, the poor handling of the migrant crisis, a lockdown that failed to flatten the state’s Covid curve, and a general anti-incumbency plaguing three-term chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Mahabharat lost, Ramayana is on
We see the same script play out on a national scale today, with the ground-breaking ceremony for the building of a new temple that appeared to be more like some kind of coronation ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Fans and haters, alike, will talk about Ram Mandir for days.
You won’t feel this is a country going through a historic economic crisis. India’s economic growth was already hurt badly even before Covid, and now the pandemic is taking us into a rare depression.
The triumphalism over the ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday, with Modi crowned as head of a Hindutva state, will make you forget that on Monday India had reported the world’s highest number of Covid cases and deaths. As Modi inserts himself into the story of the Ramayana, India will forget how he had assured us in March that defeating Covid will take only three more days than the 18 days it took to win the Mahabharat.
In the larger canvas of history, the building of the Ram Mandir is one big step in the diminution of Indian pluralism, under which all citizens could be equal regardless of the faith they practiced. But in the limited horizon of 2020, the Ayodhya temple comes as a distraction from a series of Modi’s failures. Since India can not get the Chinese to “disengage” from its border, it must sing bhajans to Lord Ram in the news.
Bhoomipujan is the new Balakot
In that sense, the Bhoomipujan of 2020 is like the Balakot “surgical strikes” of 2019. It’s the magic wand that will make all of Modi’s failures go away. That event and its political exploitation was an important reason why the BJP won a massive 303 seats by itself.
But there is one difference. The Balakot airstrikes took place about 3 months before the Lok Sabha elections. Today, nobody can say the NDA was going to lose Bihar assembly elections in November and the Ram Mandir will save them. The NDA wasn’t going to lose that election to begin with. The caste matrix and an inept opposition will ensure an NDA victory, even with an unpopular chief minister, Ram or no Ram. Yet, Lord Ram can’t solve one problem in Bihar — how to hold elections amid a pandemic. That seems to be an increasingly difficult thing to do.
Similarly, the BJP-led coalition is going to win Assam 2021 anyway, and the Mandir won’t bring it any more Hindutva-minded voters than it already has in West Bengal, or anywhere in India. What the Ram Mandir does is that it helps the BJP retain its Hindutva-minded voters. Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, who may have been upset over the ‘encounter’ of a criminal who happened to belong to their caste, will be asked by the BJP to think of Lord Ram, and his new Hanuman — Narendra Modi.
A rath yatra against unemployment?
Since there is no major election for another three months, not all is lost for the opposition. If the opposition tries hard and acts smart, it can defeat the BJP despite Ram Mandir and myriad other Hindutva political ploys. Just as UPA-1 returned to power in 2009 despite not going to war with Pakistan over 26/11, the opposition can defeat the BJP by taking up governance issues in a big way.
The more the BJP indulges in identity politics, the more its opposition should focus on governance-oriented politics. This will create some contrast that would be hard for voters to not notice, even with a co-opted media. But who in the opposition has the imagination to take out a rath yatra against unemployment? All that our opposition leaders can do is to tweet their support of the Mandir.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.