Ram enshrined: Myth and politics mingle as elections loom in India


Ram Mandir in Ayodhya ( Image supplied )

Venu Menon
Wellington, January 20,2024

The Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is being readied for inauguration by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 22, while its construction is underway.

The timeline is set to the electoral calendar and aimed at signalling to the party base of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as general elections loom, that Modi has kept his pledge to build a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.

But it sends a mixed signal to a nation that defines itself as a secular democracy in the eyes of the world.

The celebration in Ayodhya fans the atavistic fears of over 200 million Indian Muslims who recall the Babri Masjid, a mosque that stood on the same site for almost 500 years, before it was razed to the ground by Hindu activists in 1992.

The protracted litigation (preceded by bloody communal riots) that ensued culminated in 2019 with a ruling by the Supreme Court of India paving the way for the construction of a Hindu temple over the debris of the demolished mosque.

The Muslim community was compensated with an alternative site on which to build a new mosque.

Uttar Pradesh was the flashpoint for the clash of faiths. It is also India’s most populous state and the bellwether of national elections, with the largest contingent of representatives in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament.

The inauguration of the Ram temple is part of a slew of measures aimed at advancing the Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP, that includes the 2019 repeal of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special autonomous status. The move allows New Delhi tighter control over the Muslim-majority region.

That was followed in 2020 by the controversial exclusion of Muslims from an amendment to a citizenship law giving refugees fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh a pathway to Indian citizenship.

The BJP-led northeastern Indian state of Assam was rocked by riots in 2023 following the controversial revamping of electoral roles that adversely impacted Muslim-majority areas.

Yet Modi’s almost decade-long tenure at the helm has arguably raised India’s global standing. With China’s economy slowing, India is positioning itself as an emerging economic powerhouse.

The numbers back this up. India attracted FDI inflows of  $71 billion in the 2022-2023 financial year.

India’s economy is projected to grow by 7.3% in the current financial year, putting it ahead of the major global economies.

On the foreign policy front, India has made deft moves by building a strategic partnership with the United States and raised its stake in the Indo-Pacific region where  Washington is actively pursuing a policy of containment of Beijing.

India’s flamboyant presidency of the G20 in 2023 saw New Delhi leading the charge against the West on behalf of the Global South.

There are the triumphs of its indigenous space programme, coupled with the digitalisation drive and infrastructure upgrade sweeping the nation, that have given New Delhi gravitas in the global community.

But those milestones sit uneasily with the spectacle of a return to baseline politics that threatens to compromise India’s secular identity in the lead-up to the national election.

The Ram temple is at the core of an electoral strategy that has successfully galvanised 80% of India’s 1.4 billion population, that identifies as Hindu, into a distinct polity.

It is a strategy that has left the opposition Congress Party and its allies too enervated to mount a credible political challenge against the BJP.

What troubles middle ground sentiment in the country is the right-wing swing to the subversive politics of revisionism, which manifests by censoring Muslim historical references from school textbooks and renaming cities, streets and train stations to reflect a monistic Hindu identity.

But for now, the ruling BJP is preoccupied with installing an icon of the Hindu pantheon in his birthplace of Ayodhya.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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