Most parties that are part of the opposition Indian National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) are skipping the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on January 22.
This appears to be a bold move considering the perceived sensitivity of the issue to India’s Hindus, who comprise over 80 percent of India’s population.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to take the lead role in installing the idol of the Hindu deity Ram, his brother Lakshman, and wife Sita in the temple’s sanctum sanctorum. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the fraternal organizations of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is handing out invites to the who’s who of India’s political, business, entertainment, religious, sporting, and cultural world.
Refusing the invite may get one branded as anti-Hindu.
The temple stands at the same site where the Babri mosque stood until it was controversially demolished in December 1992. Construction work started after India’s Supreme Court in 2019 ruled in favor of those representing Hindu claims. Hindu litigants alleged that the 16th-century Babri mosque was built after the demolition of a Ram temple. They believe that Ram was born there.
The site at Ayodhya has been a communally polarizing issue in large parts of India for over three decades. Hindu nationalists now want to turn the inauguration event into a moment of the crowning glory of their brand of politics and sail through the coming parliamentary elections on a wave of Hindu religious sentiment.
India’s opposition parties have long grappled with the dilemma of how to deal with the invite. They have been trying to find a justification for their refusal to attend the inauguration, an ideological position that does not adversely impact their support among Hindus. Ultimately, the opposition parties have failed to forge a common position.
Four opposition parties, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have called the inauguration a “political project” of the BJP and its ideological-organizational parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The first party to turn down the invite was the CPI-M, the ruling party of the southern Indian state of Kerala. Last month, the party alleged that the Ram Temple inauguration had been turned into a “state-sponsored event for political gain.”
On January 9, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the TMC called the inauguration a “gimmick show before the Lok Sabha polls.” She said that she considered religion as a personal matter and believed in only those festivals that united people. She promised, “in the name of Ishwar and Allah,” to never allow communal division.
Then on January 10, the Congress, the biggest opposition party, “respectfully declined” the invitation. “Lord Ram is worshiped by millions in our country. Religion is a personal matter. But the RSS/BJP have long made a political project of the temple in Ayodhya,” the party said in a statement. It said that the inauguration of the incomplete temple has been “obviously brought forward for electoral gain.”
“Attending it would have meant a total surrender before their politics. Besides, we can’t forget that it would be a painful day for many Indian Muslims,” a Congress parliamentarian, who did not want to be identified, told The Diplomat.
Other opposition parties have cited different excuses to skip the event, without directly criticizing it.
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav initially declined the invite from the VHP, saying he could not accept an invite from people he did not know. Later, he said he would visit the temple as and when Lord Ram invited him. Then on Saturday, he posted on social media a letter addressed to the Ram Temple Trust, thanking them for inviting him, and stating that he would visit with his family after the consecration.
Strong electoral compulsions underlie the SP’s cautious position. It is the main opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, where the Ram Temple is located and where sentiments around the temple are most intense. It is the largest state, home to 80 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.
As for the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena-Uddhav Bal Thackeray, under the leadership of founder-supremo late Bal Thackeray, who is the father of the party’s current chief Uddhav, the party was an integral part of the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid. Though Uddhav has fallen out with the BJP in recent years, opposing the Ram Temple inauguration would have been difficult for him. Therefore, he has scheduled an event centering on Ram in Maharashtra on that day.
Expectedly, the BJP took potshots at the opposition for skipping the event. It has branded them anti-Hindu.
“Know the anti-Sanatan faces that turned down the Ram Temple ceremony’s invitation,” said a post from the BJP on X, formerly Twitter, containing a collage of the faces of the top leaders of the Congress, the TMC, the CPI-M and the SP. The Hindu nationalists use the word ‘Sanatan’ for Hindu, arguing that ‘Hindu’ is a foreign word.
The inauguration of the Ram Temple will be all about Modi.
Modi is officially the chief guest and will be the center of all ceremonies and attention.
The mainstream media is already agog with stories on how Modi has started observing an 11-day special ritual, including fasting, for the consecration event.
Modi himself shared an audio message on social media in which he appeared emotional. “I have the privilege to be present at the time of the fulfillment of the dream which many generations have lived in their hearts like a resolution for years. God has made me an instrument to represent all the people of India,” he said.
Though the Hindu nationalists insist that the Ram Temple inauguration is an apolitical event, the timing suggests otherwise.
Currently, only the ground floor of the temple is complete and, according to temple construction authorities, it will take another year for the first and second floors to be complete.
It does seem that the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella grouping of Hindu nationalist organizations like the BJP, the VHP, and RSS, decided to advance the inauguration keeping in mind that general elections are a few months away. The Hindu nationalists hope to benefit electorally from the grand temple inauguration.
They sent out invites to all major political leaders, including the opposition, expecting a win-win scenario. If the invites are accepted, it’s an acknowledgment of the victory of Hindu nationalist politics. If they are turned down, they get branded as anti-Hindu.
A unanimous decision by all constituents of the INDIA bloc could have given an ideological boost to their battle ahead but the hesitations in taking such a call are apparent. As of January 14, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which rules Delhi and Punjab in north India, has only said that they are yet to receive an invitation. Janata Dal-United of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has not made its position clear either.
Even for the Congress, the decision is not without difficulties. A number of Congress leaders from states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab have told journalists that they are aggrieved by the Congress’ decision to skip the inauguration, as they fear this can hurt them in the coming election. The party later issued a clarification, saying that even though the top leaders weren’t attending the event, there was no bar on other leaders participating.
Giving the inaugural event a miss required some courage from the opposition parties.
The BJP’s sustained popularity over the past decade has thrown many opposition parties, including the Congress, the TMC, and the AAP into a dilemma of choosing between a strong secular position and a softer majority appeasement policy, often described in the media as “soft-Hindutva.”
Even the TMC chief, who took a clear stand on Ram temple inauguration by speaking of “inclusive festivals,” highlighted a day later that her government had spent around $84.4 million for renovation of pilgrimage sites and provided a list of about a dozen Hindu temples.
It is likely that in deciding to skip the event, the opposition parties were emboldened by the criticism of two prominent Hindu seers.
On January 4, Nishchalananda Saraswati, the Sankaracharya or head of the Govardhana Mutt in eastern India’s Odisha state, said that he will not attend the inaugural as the event is being given a political angle and was not happening in accordance with the shastras (religious scriptures).
On January 9, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Maharaj, the head of Badrikashram Jyotirmath in Uttarakhand in north India, took potshots at the VHP leadership, alleging that the incomplete temple was being hurriedly inaugurated keeping electoral politics in mind, that the VHP had captured the temple, and was ignoring religious guidelines.
Several opposition leaders cited the seers’ arguments in their own defense.
Whether the opposition parties look to overcome the Ram Temple challenge by piggybacking on the disgruntled seers or come up with stronger arguments for secular issues remains to be seen.