Contrary to popular perception, Hindutva forces have not endorsed Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). However, such a public perception prompted Union Home Minister Amit Shah to announce that the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple at Ayodhya would be ready on January 1, 2024. Champat Rai, Vice President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and General Secretary of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, claimed a day later that the temple would be ready only on January 14, 2024, Makar Sankranti or Uttarayan, initiating the start of an auspicious period according to the Hindu calendar.
The timing of Shah’s announcement was clearly instigated by developments in Ayodhya, coming just two days after the Chief Priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, Mahant Satyendra Das, blessed Rahul Gandhi and the BJY. It also seemed as if Champat Rai had also endorsed BJY.
While Mahant Satyendra Das declined the invitation to join Rahul Gandhi’s walkathon, he wrote him a letter, wishing him success, “May you be healthy now and have a long life. The work that you are doing for the betterment of the country is in the direction of sarvajan hitaya, sarvajan sukhaya (betterment and happiness of all)…Prabhu Ram Lalla ki kripa aapke upar bani rahe (May the blessing of Lord Ram Lalla always be with you.”
Mahant Satyendra Das, however, is not a BJP or VHP appointee. Indeed, he is known for his opposition to the VHP. He was appointed by the Supreme Court prior to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and gets his salary from the Divisional Commissioner of Ayodhya. His predecessor Baba Lal Das was also opposed to the RSS and the VHP throughout his career as the priest of the Ram temple at the disputed site. Satyendra Das’ endorsement of Rahul Gandhi does not amount to a blessing of the Hindutva forces.
The confusion was the inadvertent handiwork of Champat Rai, general secretary of the Trust responsible for the construction and running of the temple. When cornered by a journalist to respond to the Ram Temple priest’s letter, he retorted, “A young man is walking on foot and trying to understand the country; it is worth appreciating. What is wrong with this? Who is criticising it (yatra)?” His feeble face-saver before the media raised some confusion in the public mind about the VHP’s attitude to Rahul Gandhi and the BJY.
Shah had to step in and reclaim the completion of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple for the BJP. As it will be central to its campaign for the 2024 general election, the temple has to remain unambiguously identified with the party. The BJP can hardly go to the voters on its governance record and improving the quality of life of ordinary citizens. That is the plank on which the Opposition, especially Rahul Gandhi, is challenging it.
The government’s track record remains dismal on the issues of livelihood. Unemployment hit a 16-month high in January 2023 at 8.3% (urban at 9.8%, rural at 7.5%) and remains high among youth (15 to 24 years). In its report card on the Modi government’s eight years, the Opposition Congress citing data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), pointed out that instead of adding 20 million jobs a year as promised, the Modi government had instead “snatched away” 125 million jobs in this period. By 2028, it argued, India needs to create 343.5 million new job opportunities and “at the current rate, the BJP will require 1,526 years to create these many jobs.”
Home budgets have been wrecked by rocketing food prices. After initially distributing free food to nearly 60% of the population under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the scheme was discontinued from January 1, 2023. Instead, food distributed through PDS to National Food Security Act cardholders has been made free. Economist Jean Dreze has exposed the decision as a subterfuge because free food under PDS costs the government only an additional Rs.15,000 crores. In contrast, free food to a much larger population under PMGKY would cost Rs.1.8 trillion and cause a depletion in food stocks. Increasing procurement in the current high-inflation environment would be even more expensive.
The move has been packaged as a “new year’s gift for the country’s poor” without adding any other social security measures in its place for those left out of PDS. An estimated 100 million of the poor get left out because the government is not updating data from the 2011 Census. The World Bank estimates that in the Covid-hit year of 2020 alone, between 23-56 million people were pushed into poverty in India.
A seminal study by the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) on malnutrition and the government’s own data for 2022, show that anaemia is the norm amongst Indian children (67% in children below five) and in women (57% in women under 50 years of age); that six out of 10 households have no health insurance and nearly 50% of India’s total health expenditure is borne by households.
In the education sector, the CEDA cites the National Achievement Survey of 2021 to show learning was disproportionately hit among marginalised and poor students in the pandemic, with a quarter of the students saying they had no access to electronic devices to study in online mode. An astounding 78% reported learning difficulties in studying from home. Jharkhand shows that by the time they re-entered classrooms in 2022, children from classes 3 to 5 in the state, had forgotten how to read and write. There are no plans for recouping the learning loss of these children. The list of the government’s failures is long.
The early signalling of a return to Ram temple politics, therefore, shows that the BJP has understood that it cannot go to the polls on its governance record or on fulfilling the promises of development made in 2014. At the same time, it cannot allow the perception to grow that the Hindutva forces against whose divisive politics Rahul Gandhi has undertaken the BJY have softened towards him and blessed his challenge to the BJP.