This was still 1987 and elections were two more years away. The opening up of the gates of the Ram Temple coupled with the Shah Bano case could not have had a major impact in electoral preferences as we see in the dates that don’t match. Also, the Bofors scandal was two years before the elections, and if the Indian electorate—often dubbed as forgetful—can forgive Indira Gandhi for the dreadful Emergency in three years, Bofors was perhaps not as horrific. The scandal reduced Rajiv Gandhi’s popularity, but how does it relate to the rise in BJP’s power?
Something unrelated was going on in India during 1987–88, an event of considerable importance to account for BJP’s rise, and yet, it has simply escaped scholarly scrutiny. This was the first-ever public broadcast of the Hindu epic Ramayana!
Airing through January 1987 until July 1988, the series moved the country in ways unimaginable. A total of 78, 45-minute-long episodes aired on Sunday mornings were to become weekly rituals that lakhs of Indian homes ceremoniously indulged in, with great devotion and amazement. Streets would get deserted, buses and even trains would stop, and passengers would step out to watch the serial on TV in a roadside shop. At homes, people would bathe, garland the television, burn incense and kneel before the television as the show would begin. It was a like a spell no one could have imagined. Generations of families and neighbours would huddle together in the same room to watch the serial with unparalleled reverence and humanity’s most ardent following for any soap opera ever broadcasted. The actors who played characters on the show became real-life gods for people.
Estimates suggest that around 65 crore people watched the show. The television revolution had only begun in India in the 1980s and the timing of the serial couldn’t have been better. In 1983, India produced 8 lakh TV sets. This number had gone up to 30 lakh in 1986. During the eight years preceding the broadcasting of Ramayana, the number of TV sets had gone up by ten times, and the audience by six times. This was a revolution with a massive and long-lasting psychological impact. For the first time, people were able to view life and aspirations of fellow Indians. Serials like Hum Log and Buniyaad sensitised the masses to a ‘way of living’ that they could either relate to or aspired for. The normative understanding of Indianness as one nation (Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities come to mind), and one way of thinking was triggered, and in a big way, constructed by television penetration in India. Note that despite low ownership rates, television viewership was high. One TV had so many viewers.
They all huddled up around one television to watch it. People in remote areas had now expanded their horizon of imagining India. And research shows that a strong node of this imagination had hinged around middle-class urban Hindu imagination. In one of the surveys of 1,170 people in Delhi, Pune and (then) Madras, conducted during the same period, scholars discovered this centralising imagination. Eighty-five per cent of lower-caste TV viewers felt their needs and aspirations were not covered adequately in TV serials, 90 per cent of Muslim and Sikh respondents felt their religious customs and practices were not adequately portrayed, and over 90 per cent of labourers and artisans also felt their skills and knowledge were not properly depicted.
Interestingly, 60 per cent of non-Hindi speaking population felt that their problems and difficulties were not being projected on Indian television. And yet, as a coordinating link that technology provides, the value judgments, traditions and customs appearing on TV were slowly acquiring the status of uniformity.
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Let’s try to connect all of these factors. Increasingly, high viewership of television had surfaced a singular imagination of who an Indian was, and how did they deal with everything that was India. As this benchmark was being established, Ramayana was telecast. It was impossible that it would not touch Indians deeply.
BJP was the biggest gainer. This doesn’t mean that Ramayana was BJP’s doing. Somehow when BJP was gaining ground, people received a sentimental religious dose every week, through 1987–88 in the form of Ramayana, and between 1988–90 through Mahabharata, which also drew a massive following (second only to Ramayana). This interweaving of political-real and religious-reel during 1987–90 provided a powerful recipe to mobilise the voters’ minds into looking at BJP as a party that carries the emotions of India.
Hinduism is unlike any other religion, and, in fact, many question whether it is even a religion at all. It has a pagan character without a prescriptive text or a rulebook. It is, unlike the Abrahamic framework, not rooted in true and false gods, and therefore has innumerable deities. These deities and several varnas (loosely translated and collected into castes) are scattered across India, following their own rituals, religious symbols, rules and traditions which are customary to that group. There is no universal rule or text in Hinduism. It has a very flexible architecture, and shapes and reshapes itself over time. So, it evolves in a variety of ways, through people’s own interpretation around customs.
Many call it an open source religion (if one can call it religion in the first place). A.K. Ramanujam’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’—written for a conference to be held in 1987, the same year as Ramayana’s broadcast—is a valuable excursion of Ramayana’s various ‘tellings’ across Asian societies over 2,500 years and presents the claim that there is no singular version of the Ramayana.
The 1987 broadcast of Ramayana, however, brought a singular consciousness of the Hindu epic to everyone in the country. Consider a nation suddenly realising that religion is becoming a more explicit tool in the hands of political leaders. Generations which evolved with Gandhian ideals were becoming irrelevant. Congress was failing to provide a sound economy; it was getting its hands dirty in corruption even in matters as important as national security, and was also pandering to religious minority interests.
This India was scrambling for options when it came across BJP. Just when they noticed BJP’s vision, television sets hooked them up to the epic. This India then began drawing inspiration and meaning of its own identity from the televised Ramayana.
While the seventh and eighth episodes of Mahabharata were being aired in November 1989, India was going out to cast its ballot once again. This time, they had an image of Lord Ram in their minds.
And his birthplace.
Something else is important here—in the 1989 general elections, there was a pre-poll alliance between Janata Dal (JD) and BJP. And that may have been the reason for BJP’s rise too, some may claim; perhaps BJP was piggybacking on JD’s popularity.
There was a huge anti-incumbency wave anyway. So, this is a fair point. In 1989, the two parties had a seat adjustment agreement, whereby they had agreed to put up a common candidate, so that they did not compete against each other. Since in many constituencies, only one common candidate was fielded on behalf of both these parties, how do we know where the vote went, really? For instance, if BJP had no candidate in constituency X, and JD did, it was possible that the votes going to this candidate may have actually been meant for BJP, but there is simply no way of finding out. Paul Brass, for example, has suggested that BJP’s reliance on the seat adjustment was very high in places like UP to gain a stronghold there.
Excerpted from Who Moved My Vote-Digging Through Indian Electoral Data, by Yugank Goyal and Arun Kumar Kaushik with permission from Westland Non-Fiction, an imprint of Westland Books.