The political linkages between the handling of COVID-19 by the Central government and various authorities and the Ram temple bhumi pujan ceremony at Ayodhya, held on August 5, had been the topic of discussion in various forums right from the announcement of the function. For Vinay Katiyar, the former Lok Sabha member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) representing Ayodhya and founder president of the Bajrang Dal, which played a big role in the Ram temple agitation, the event was one that would bestow “such special blessings of Lord Ram on the BJP and its governments at the Centre and in the State that they would be able to overcome all challenges and problems confronting them”. Leaders of opposition parties, such as Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar, categorised the bhumi pujan exercise as a misplaced, sectarian priority, which was also aimed at diverting attention from the government’s shortcomings in various areas, including the fight against COVID and protection of the borders. In a telling commentary on the government’s priorities and failures, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, responding to a direct question on the event, emphasised that the responsibility of governments and political leadership was to address the serious situation arising from the burgeoning number of COVID cases across the country.
Developments in Ayodhya following the bhumi pujan underscored Vijayan’s observations. As many as 20 security personnel posted around the site and at least five priests associated with the temple construction, including Nritya Gopal Das, the chief of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Nyas, the trust formed to oversee the construction of the temple, tested positive for COVID in the first three weeks of August.
Shiv Sena’s poser
The case of Nritya Gopal Das was promptly taken up by the Shiv Sena, one-time ally of the BJP and currently the leading partner in the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition government in Maharashtra, to raise some pertinent questions.
An editorial of the party’s organ Saamna on August 16 asked whether it would not be appropriate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go into quarantine as he had shared the stage with the mahant during the bhumi pujan. It said: “The 75-year-old Mahant Nritya Gopal Das was present on stage on August 5 at the bhumi pujan ceremony of the Ram Temple. He had not covered his face with a mask. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] chief Mohan Bhagwat came in contact with the mahant. Prime Minister Modi held the hand of Nritya Gopal Das with reverence. So will our Prime Minister be quarantined?”
The editorial further said: “At present, [Union Home Minister] Amit Shah is also in solitude after contracting the infection. Even former President Pranab Mukherjee has tested positive for the virus and his health is in a worrisome state. All Cabinet Members, bureaucrats, Parliament members are vulnerable to falling prey to the lethal infection. Even during riots and war, Delhi was not so frightened as it is today. The city seems to be a bit more scared now. The fear of Prime Minister Modi and Shah had already taken root, but the trepidation relating to coronavirus is stronger.”
Barely a week after the Saamna editorial, on August 21, India recorded the highest single-day spike of 69,878 COVID cases. This was not an accidental high, because for almost two weeks until then, the number of COVID cases daily had ranged between 60,000 and 69,000. In this period India became the world’s third affected country in the world—in terms of mortality and number of infections—after the United States and Brazil.
BJP-ruled States such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, and Bihar, where it is a constituent of the ruling coalition, accounted for the most number of these cases. The situation was so bad that in an online meeting of Chief Ministers in the third week of August, the Prime Minister sought better COVID management from these States and West Bengal and Telangana. However, according to many Health Department officials at the national level and in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this surge in COVID cases was not getting discussed seriously in political platforms or the media.
Disarming the opposition
Sangh Parivar activists, a majority of them from northern India, were of the view that this lack of focus on the COVID situation was not confined to official forums or the media and that a sizable number of the population had also started looking beyond the dangers of the pandemic and preparing to carry on a normal life. In interactions with Frontline in the second week of August, every single one of them was of the view that this turnaround in popular mood was made possible on account of the bhumi pujan. While die-hard Ram devotees like Vinay Katiyar sought to draw attention to the Ayodhya factor helping the governments of Modi and Yogi Adityanath (in Uttar Pradesh), many others with a more objective and realistic bent of mind admitted that bringing the Hindutva agenda to the fore has helped the BJP and its governments to face up to the challenges before them.
Some of these activists said that in a series of discussions, including those in online forums, leaders of the Sangh Parivar expressed satisfaction over the political impact of the bhumi pujan. This was in contrast to such discussions in March and April which were marked by concerns over more and more people getting disillusioned with the BJP, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in spite of there being no concrete political resistance from opposition parties. A stream of opinion right from that time was that a Hindutva-oriented initiative like the bhumi pujan could help cover up factors causing popular disgruntlement over the handling of the COVID situation relief activities and the consequent socio-economic problems.
After the latest round of discussions, Sangh Parivar leaders have come to the conclusion that the bhumi pujan had not only fulfilled its political objective but actually sent all mainstream opposition parties into a tizzy.
Talking to Frontline, Vinay Katiyar summed up this assessment as follows: “The Ayodhya bhumi pujan has triggered a political chain reaction, which has laid bare the sense of nervousness in all mainstream opposition parties in north India. They are all clambering in desperation to share political space with the BJP by devising their own Hindutva-oriented projects. In many ways, these efforts by the opposition parties underscore the dominance and sway that the Hindutva ideology has got in the current political sphere of the country. We all know the reactions of the Congress leadership to the bhumi pujan event, including that of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who succumbed to our perspectives on the Ram mandir. That was a pitiable repetition of the efforts of former Congress leaders like Rajiv Gandhi to appropriate the Ayodhya Ram mandir project. It is quite evident that the current Congress attempts are a non-starter. But other opposition parties too have started some efforts in the present context. However, in its detail, most of these exercises are downright ridiculous and would not result in any political benefits to the opposition.”
While Vinay Katiyar made no direct reference to any political party, there was little doubt that he was referring to the moves by the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh to carry out a campaign to erect a statue of Parashuram, considered to be the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. The S.P. has reportedly made some concrete moves in this direction. The party’s idea, apparently, is to erect a 108-foot Parashuram statue in Lucknow. By all indications, Abhishek Mishra, former Minister in the Akhilesh Yadav Cabinet (2012-17), has been given charge of the politico-religious project. BSP chief Mayawati has announced that once her party comes to power it would erect a statue bigger than what the S.P. would build.
Faizabad-based political observer Raghu Nandan Sharma told Frontline that both the S.P. and the BSP seemed to be working on the premise that the upper caste Brahmin community in Uttar Pradesh is upset with the Yogi Adityanath government after the alleged encounter killing of gangster Vikas Dubey, a Brahmin who had considerable clout within the community. Said Raghu Nandan Sharma: “In fact, the Congress too seems to be working on the same premise, with its own Brahmin leader Jitin Prasada rustling up a campaign highlighting the so-called oppressive measures of the Yogi Adityanath government to marginalise the Brahmin community. Incidentally, Yogi Adityanath belongs to the other dominant upper caste community, the Thakurs. However, all these calculations are simplistic and overambitious. The fact is that Lord Ram is as much a symbol for the Brahmin community as he is for the Thakurs and evidently the Hindutva project is on the ascendant, in spite of all the problems relating to COVID and the economy.” His views have many takers in all the opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh.
The Bihar scenario
The situation is similar in Bihar too, where the opposition Grand Alliance is disintegrating. There is a big churning on account of the infighting in the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the principal constituent of the Grand Alliance. Nearly half a dozen members of the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council from the party have left it and joined the Janata Dal (United), which rules the State in coalition with the BJP.
The Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), led by former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, has also announced that it is quitting the Grand Alliance. Manjhi has indicated that he is headed towards the JD(U)-led National Democratic Alliance.
The fact that elections are due in the State by the end of the year add significance to these developments. As observed by the Prime Minister himself, Bihar has a poor record in handling the COVID threat, but all that has been glossed over by the majoritarian social and political agenda in the Hindi heartland States. The cost of it on the country’s public health system and economy are, of course, of no consequence when political and electoral gains remain the primary target.