The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must have realized by now that the Ram Sethu controversy will not be a rerun of the Ram temple issue of a decade-and-a-half ago which propelled the party from the margins of Indian politics to center stage.
The reason is that there is no anti-Muslim angle in the sethu dispute. As such, it will not be possible for the party to exploit communal sentiments, as it did in the 1990s, to build up political support.
In contrast, the BJP must have noted with dismay that there is a distinct possibility of the sethu affair leading to Hindu vs Hindu clashes, as has already been evident in the attack on the Bangalore house of the daughter of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, following the latter's anti-Ram comments.
Any such development, reminiscent of caste conflicts, will be hugely damaging to all the parties involved. In the present instance, it is the BJP and the DMK which have squared off for a fight over what many people will consider an esoteric issue.
It is perhaps to avoid such clashes - which claimed two lives when a bus from Tamil Nadu was set on fire probably by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists near Bangalore - that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has intervened. The suggestion of this paterfamilias of the saffron brotherhood is to set up a panel - the Ramesswaram Ram Sethu Raksha Manch - to conduct a movement to 'save' the sethu, thereby denying the BJP the leadership role.
The move is in tune with the earlier exhortations by the VHP to the BJP not to politicize the dispute. In making this appeal, the VHP may have had in mind the fate of the 'politicized' temple agitation, which has faded out.
The decision of the RSS will partly check the BJP's attempts to make political capital out of the issue - something which will not please L.K. Advani, the party's senior leader, who was said to have been contemplating embarking on yet anotherrath yatra (chariot ride), recalling such a journey he made in 1990 to launch the Ram temple agitation.
While the success of that movement made the BJP eager to seize on the Ram sethu dispute, its enthusiasm is not shared this time by some of its allies. The Janata Dal-United (JD-U), for instance, which is in power in Bihar along with the BJP, has dismissed the subject as a non-issue, declaring that other matters, such as poverty and unemployment, were more important.
This indifference of even the BJP's partners is probably due to the perception that the repeated use of religious symbols to boost political prospects can breed cynicism even among their traditional supporters about their motives.
As is known, the BJP's Ayodhya agitation was based on the propagation of the belief that the Mughal emperor, Babur, had built the Babri masjid at the site where Lord Ram was born. Similarly, the Ram sethu issue is based on the conviction that this 'natural formation' comprising coral reefs and sand banks, which is also known as the Adam's bridge in the Palk Strait, is the mythical bridge built by Ram's simian militia when the Hindu deity went to Sri Lanka to rescue his abducted wife, Sita, from the demon king, Ravana.
However, as the DMK's response has shown, there is also a north-south divide on the subject, precluding the possibility of the Hindutva camp building up a national movement. If sections in the south are lukewarm about the issue, if not positively hostile, the reason is the tradition of anti-brahmin and anti-north Indian stance which the Dravidian parties have adopted to consolidate their mainly backward and lower caste support base.
The DMK and some of its allies also like to project the Ram-Ravan war as a reflection of the Aryan vs Dravidian conflict following the 'arrival' of the Aryans in North India around 1500 BC.
Although Jayalalitha of the AIADMK is currently supportive of the BJP, this attitude is typical of both the DMK and the AIADMK, which are always in opposing camps, whatever the issue. Even then, Jayalalitha will be aware that she is going against the grain of atheistic Dravidian politics, which can undermine her political position.
Again, it is evidently to highlight his difference from the AIADMK that the Tamil Nadu chief minister has been unusually aggressive in his refusal to accept Ram as a historical figure.
It is a stance that will be endorsed by a wide section of historians. For instance, in her book "Early India", well-known historian Romila Thapar says that "the conflict between Ram and Ravana probably reflects an exaggerated version of local conflicts, occurring between expanding kingdoms of the Ganges plain and the less sedentary societies of the Vindhyan region ... the transference of events to a more southerly location may have been the work of editors (of the Ramayana) of a later period, reflecting an expanded geography, as was possibly also the case in the depiction of Lanka itself as a city of immense wealth".
The Manmohan Singh government and the Congress have been caught between the 'rationality' of the DMK's attitude and the Hindutva brigade's emotive politics. They can neither be too critical of the DMK, which is a constituent of the ruling coalition at the centre, nor reject its contention for fear of offending Hindu sentiments.
The Congress also has to guard against such sentiments since its president, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian by birth. This issue is also being cynically exploited by the BJP, as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's comment that the people have to choose between Ram and Rome shows.
On the other hand, the Congress is also aware that the community of scientists and historians will be outraged if the party endorses the saffron brotherhood's assertion that the 1.7 million-year-old 'bridge' is man-made - or monkey-made.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)