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BJP plays its trump card. Mahesh Sharma sounds Ram Mandir war cry in UP

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

In one chapter of Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas, the Vaanar Sena is impatiently looking to reach Lanka and when all else fails, it begins invoking Lord Ram's name and builds a bridge across the ocean.

BJP, which is really desperate to conquer Uttar Pradesh, on Tuesday did something similar through Union Tourism and Culture minister Mahesh Sharma - it laid political foundation of Ram Mandir for next year's polls.

Ram Mandir is the mother of all communal conflict in Uttar Pradesh. When Sharma invoked Ram, he also brought up the ghosts of Babri Masjid, whose demolition caused deaths of thousands of people in the state and outside it.

"Mann ban chuka hai, mahaul ban chuka hai. Ram Lalla ka adesh ho chuka hai (we have made up our mind, the atmosphere is right, we have received Ram Lalla's order as well)," Sharma said in a public speech in Ayodhya, and left no doubt about the BJP's intention of playing the Ram Mandir card in the run up to the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Mann ban chuka hai, mahaul ban chuka hai. Ram Lalla ka adesh ho chuka hai: Mahesh Sharma

While the ostensible reason behind culture minister's visit was the building of a Ramayana museum to promote spiritual tourism in Ayodhya. His actual motive - of opening the Ram Mandir front for his party's campaign in the state - was neither concealed by him nor lost on the public.

All indications, from sources within the party, and from Sharma's heavily political speech - loaded with repeated references to 'Ram Lalla', 'Ram Rajya', 'Ram ka kaam' - point towards an increasingly belligerent campaign on Ram Mandir. One that becomes the talking point across the state.

Playing to a script

The speech Sharma delivered on Tuesday was not delivered on a whim or heat of the moment. His speech and references were based on cold logic and a clearly thought out plan by the party for next year's polls.

The Mandir is a particularly favourite with the party because all that's required from them is to light the fuse. The bigger the explosion, the greater the polarisation, the better for BJP. And in case its leaders are asked about their promise to build the temple - just say that their hands are tied by the Supreme Court.

While allowing voices like Mahesh Sharma's to attract the general sentiment, BJP has also allowed loose cannons in the party to raise the pitch even higher.

Rabid elements like Vinay Katiyar, the face of the violent Ram temple movement in Ayodhya in the 1990s, who on Tuesday called the idea of Ramayan Musuem 'a lollipop' and called for the building of Ram Temple.

Another face of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, currently the water resources minister in Modi Cabinet, Uma Bharti has promised a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya by 2017. In a press conference on Monday she again said that the disputed land "will always belong to Ram".

Hindu consolidation is the aim

But for all the hype BJP wouldn't want Ram Mandir to dominate the discourse either. The party leaders know that the issue has been politically exhausted to death, which is why the previous BJP led governments stopped making much noise about it. But the party would not want the Mandir to drop out of discussion either.

Ram Mandir is part of BJP's broader, familiar, plan for Uttar Pradesh - to break caste calculations and attract Hindu majority vote towards it en masse. Modi's Dalit outreach, Mahesh Sharma's visit to Dadri, raking up of the Kairana issue, debate over Triple Talaq and now Ram Mandir are all parts of this larger plan.

On Tuesday, Sharma only became a mascot for the Ram Mandir issue. As his fellow party member and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is the mascot of anti-Pakistan jingoism, who endlessly talks about the valour of the Indian army and surgical strikes.

The chief mascot, of course, is Narendra Modi who will try to present himself as development icon. He rises above these petty issues, praises the army, empathises with Dalits and speaks only of improving lives through development.

In fact on Tuesday the Prime Minister addressed two rallies, one in Himachal Pradesh, the other in Punjab. In Mandi, HP, Modi praised army's valour by comparing its ability of covert strikes to that of Israel Defence Forces and promised gas connection to every household. In Ludhiana he talked about his head hanging in shame because of atrocities on Dalits.

One reason that the BJP is trying to highlight a number of issues - Mandir, surgical strikes, Kairana etc - is because the party is looking to learn from its past mistakes.

"It is true that there was no Ram Mandir issue in Bihar, but the fact was that our poll campaign in the state lost coherence in the last few months before elections, when several issues [Bihari vs Bahari, Mohan Bhagwat's statement on reservation etc] got us off track. Here we are dominating the discourse through Triple Talaq, Kairana, Dadri, surgical strikes right from the start. We're deciding the terms of debate," said a party source.

Along with Ram Mandir, BJP will continue to play up issues like Gau Raksha and Triple Talaq

The source added that the party had made a similar mistake in 2004, when all that the party talked about was 'India shining' and ignored nationalist, Hindu sentiments. This is what the party does not want to happen in this election campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

Hence the Mandir pitch. Through the speech by Mahesh Sharma and hardline reactions by his colleagues Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharti, the party is still testing waters. It is still not sure how strongly will this issue resonate in UP. How long is the party going to sustain this moment, given the election is still six months away, is another question on the Mandir issue.

First published: 18 October 2016, 11:05 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.