Agra vs Ayodhya for 2019: If the economy is plan A in BJP’s calculus for Lok Sabha polls, Ram is plan B
For the Nobel prize winning Rabindranath Tagore, who also happened to write India’s national anthem, the Taj Mahal famously rose “above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.” For the 2019 general elections, the Mughal monument is emerging as a set-piece for the political chessboard, a powerful visual metaphor of the past which can be counterpoised directly with the evocative imagery of a newly virile Ayodhya and the politically loaded language of a fresh Ram Rajya in the offing.
While UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath – who will be visiting the Taj this week – has been politically correct in publicly diluting the odious polemic of BJP’s Sardhana MLA Sangeet Som, on why the Taj and its Mughal progenitors should not feature in history books, the Yogi’s recourse to class cleavages in his damage control exercise was telling. While upholding his government’s responsibility to provide “quality services to visitors” and reiterating that he has a Taj plan worth Rs 370 crore, the chief minister also sidestepped the dangerous ideational chasms and toxic religious divides sought to be opened up by Som. “It does not matter who built it (Taj Mahal) and for what reason,” said Adityanath. “It was built by the blood and sweat of Indian labourers.”
This sounds like a fair enough response, by itself. Yet, it raises more questions than answers at a time when at least one BJP Rajya Sabha MP, Vinay Katiyar, has insisted on repeating the old canard that the Taj was built on a Shiva temple seized by Shah Jahan. The party’s spokespersons have conveniently been trying to sidestep the vitriol poured out by Som as simply an individual view while insisting in the same breath – as GVL Narasimha Rao did – that Mughal rule was “barbaric” and “a period of incomparable intolerance”.
Illustration: Uday Deb
More so, it was Yogi himself who on June 16 first raised the Taj bogey in a speech in Darbhanga, when he argued that “earlier when foreign dignitaries visited the country they were gifted replicas of Agra’s Taj Mahal or some minar with which Indian culture has nothing in common. For the first time now, they are gifted Srimad Bhagwad Gita or Ramayana.”
This wider obsession with history and what seems a Sancho Panza-like mission to correct its perceived wrongs is incompatible with the slogan of ‘vikasvad’ which Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has declared as BJP’s USP in the ongoing Gujarat campaign. At a base political level though, it also serves as dog-whistle politics. The words mean one thing and follow constitutionality but to the converted they have a different resonance, understood with encoded meanings.
The Taj, in that sense, becomes a convenient visual symbol for the imaginary of the exploitative Muslim, in this binary colonial construction of Indian history as a permanent war of antagonisms between rival religions. Ayodhya versus Agra in this Manichean view of the world emerges as a useful political tool and a logical corollary.
So, when the chief minister goes to Ayodhya to celebrate Diwali; when 1.7 lakh lamps are lit in a stunning spectacle on the banks of the hallowed Saryu and a state helicopter is turned into a veritable ‘pushpak viman’ for actors dressed as the returning Ram and Sita the visual vocabulary of change is reinforced for the political Hindu. A Ram temple on the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi may be subject to the Supreme Court’s judicial decision but declaring a new Ram Rajya in the form of bijli-sadak-pani is smart populism calculated to galvanise the faithful.
If Modi turned from Hindu Hridya Samrat in his early years as chief minister to Vikas Purush, Adityanath is being built up as the unabashed Ram-Yogi. If the economy is plan A in the calculus for 2019, plan B is Ram.
Ironically, there is a good economic argument for Adityanath’s vision of creating Navya Ayodhya as a tourist destination. At a time when public hospitals in his own base of Gorakhpur are still struggling to deal with encephalitis the religion-focussed investment plan has been dismissed by many, but UP’s tourism numbers tell an interesting story. State government data indicate that overall tourist arrivals in Agra in 2016 amounted to 1.03 crore (62.4 lakh for the Taj, including 6.94 lakh foreigners), while Ayodhya received 1.55 crore tourists (mostly domestic). In fact, Allahabad, with its Sangam, continues to be the most popular city in UP for domestic tourists, 4.11 crore of whom visited it in 2016.
With 12 crore pilgrims expected for the Ardh Kumbh due in 2019, there is an economic rationale for investing in a renewed religious tourism circuit, without taking focus away from sites in Agra. Yet, the saffron-hued political symbolism of Yogi drives the agenda.
There is a reason why he is the only BJP chief minister who has been fielded by the party for political campaigning in Kerala, despite the presence of several other state satraps from Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh to Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Devendra Fadnavis. He has also been campaigning in Gujarat’s Valsad and his political deployments further cement his place in BJP’s emerging pantheon as the uncompromising hardline face of its saffron nationalism.
Going back to his predecessors as mahant at the Gorakhnath temple – Digvijay Nath and Avaidyanath, both of whom were associated with Hindu Mahasabha – Adityanath represents a different strand of Hindutva from the traditional mainstream Hindutva thinking within the party. How his politics plays out could be decisive for BJP’s future as it gears up for 2019.