Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Ayodhya I

Advani promises Ram temple soon after NDA returns to power

April 6: On the foundation day of the BJP, where would you expect to find its chief architect who built up the party using the cement with the brand name Ayodhya? Ayodhya, of course.

The architect, deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, began the day offering prayers to Lord Rama at the makeshift temple that stands today where the Babri Masjid stood till 1992. After that he addressed a news conference, where he announced that the Ram temple would be constructed “shortly after” the NDA government returned to power at the Centre, and then drove off to finish the final leg of his India Shining rath yatra.

“We have already made some quiet progress. I am confident that we will be able to reach an agreement involving Hindu and Muslim representatives shortly after the new government is in place,” Advani told the conference. He, however, refused to say who the Muslim representatives were, saying they (the Muslim representatives) did not want publicity till a solution was found to the Ayodhya dispute. “You might be looking for a good copy,” he told a journalist, “but I am looking for a solution. So I cannot reveal the details.”

But he said once the temple was built, it would unite India the way the movement for its construction in 1990 had united the Hindus. “People say the temple movement had divided the society. But when the movement began, the society was divided like never before. One caste was fighting the other (because of the introduction of the Mandal Commission report). But our movement brought about unprecedented unity among the Hindus. And when the temple is built, it will bring about unity between the Hindus and Muslims,” Advani told the conference, held in an open space adjacent to the makeshift temple.

The temple is heavily guarded by battalions of the Uttar Pradesh police and the CPRF. Devotees have to go through a maze of narrow, grilled corridors – narrow enough to ensure they move in a single file – and have to pass through security checks at three points. Mobile phones and other electronic gadgets are not allowed.

Advani said he was saddened by the state of siege in which the idols of Lord Rama and his wife and brothers sat under the canopy, and hoped that things will improve once a grand temple was built. He said the construction of a grand temple would also lay the foundation for Ram Rajya – a dream of Mahatma Gandhi – in India. But the Ram Rajya, he said, would materialise by the year 2020 “when India would become a developed nation.”

The promise of a developed nation by 2020 was the focus of the speeches Advani made while cutting through the heart of Uttar Pradesh on his chariot. In fact, he used the promise to blunt the criticism his party, the BJP, has been drawing for boasting that India is shining. “Maine yeh kaha hai ki Bharat chamak raha hai. Maine yeh kabhi nahin kahaa ki Bharat chamak gaya hai (I have only said that India is beginning to shine. I have never said that India has already shined),” Advani said in speech after speech, including the one he made in Lucknow on Monday at a rally where he shared the dais with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. India will really shine, he said, by the year 2020.

The future he is talking about is distant: Vajpayee will be 96 then and Advani himself 95. As a member of the audience, listening to Advani at Lucknow, commented while walking out of the Ambedkar Stadium: “In that case, we will vote for them in 2019.”

The crowd that Vajpayee and Advani addressed in Lucknow on Monday was thin – in fact very thin if you compare it with the crowd that came to listen to Mayawati in the same stadium on March 13. But then, Mayawati, in Uttar Pradesh, is a force to reckon with and the BJP admits that. Advani told a news conference in Kanpur on Monday that his party’s principle opponents in the state were the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Yet, in speech after speech in the state, Advani, and also Vajpayee, trained their guns on Sonia Gandhi’s Congress, which is hardly a force when compared with the SP and the BSP.

Maybe the crowds, which have seen an aggressive Advani in the past, are tired of hearing the same statements about the ineffectiveness of the Congress and its leadership. Or maybe, thanks to the television channels and the extensive media coverage of the rath yatra, people knew what to expect from Advani. Whatever the reason, the response to his yatra in Uttar Pradesh has been quite lukewarm, with the exception of Faizabad (the district under which Ayodhya falls), where people in great numbers had gathered to listen to Advani and Kalyan Singh, who was the chief minister when the Babri mosque fell in 1992.

But even there, locals say, people are enthusiastic about voting for the BJP only because its present Lok Sabha candidate Lallu Singh, who has a long-serving MLA has established an excellent rapport with his electorate, and not because they are fond of the party.
Maybe that is why the Kalyan Singh, to make sure the BJP candidate won, literally begged the people to vote for his party. “I fall at your feet, please vote for the BJP and don’t let Ram down,” the once-fiery Kalyan Singh said.

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