Ram Sethu Issue Unlikely to Boost BJP Prospects

The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) hopes of using the Ram Sethu issue for electoral gains are unlikely to be fulfilled. Like the temple, which is no longer of any electoral value for the BJP, the sethu (bridge) doesn't seem to have been of much use in mobilizing voters for the party.

As much was clear from its lackluster performance in the Karnataka local body elections where the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) emerged as the winner. If the sethu was expected to have an impact, it should have done so in Karnataka, where the polls were held when the issue was still very much in the news.    

That it didn't was evidence enough that the average Hindu wasn't terribly upset with either the proposal to cut a shipping channel through Adam's Bridge, the 1.7 million-year-old "natural formation" of coral reefs and sand banks, in the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka, or with the central government's affidavit calling into question the historicity of Lord Ram.

It may be recalled that the Hindu epic Ramayana credits Ram with building the bridge to cross over to Sri Lanka in search of his wife Sita, abducted by the demon king Ravan. While the BJP and the Hindutva brotherhood prefer a literal interpretation of this episode, historians like Romila Thapar say that "the identification with present day Sri Lanka is problematic" considering that the "earliest name for Ceylon judging by Indian, Greek and Latin references ... was Tamraparni (Taprobane In Greek)".

Thapar therefore says that the events described in the Ramayana may have taken in place in central India.

The BJP, of course, likes to present myths as history to appeal to Hindu sentiments. Considering, however, that the issue had no impact on the Karnataka elections, it is obvious that it will not play a major role in the general election.

For the BJP, this indifference of the voters will be all the more disheartening because of its continuing difficulties on several fronts. For a start, its alliance in Karnataka with the JD-S has collapsed because of the latter's reluctance to hand over the reins of power to its (former) partner in accordance with the original understanding.

Significantly, one of the reasons given by Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy to keep the BJP at arm's length was the violence indulged in by saffron supporters on the sethu issue, when they attacked the house in Bangalore of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's daughter in protest against the comments made by her father against Lord Ram.

It is worth remembering that the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu subscribes to an anti-brahminical and even atheistic philosophy, showing that unlike what the BJP claims, there are wide variations in what the Hindus believe.

If Karnataka slips out of the BJP's grasp, its hope of using the state as a stepping stone to attain power elsewhere in South India will be dashed. Since the party is apprehensive of facing the anti-incumbency factor in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, it may lose ground in a number of states in the general election.

Even in its stronghold of Gujarat, the dissensions within the party means that Chief Minister Narendra Modi will not have the easiest of times in the poll.

However, the BJP's main worries are not so much about these fluctuations of fortunes, which are a routine feature of politics, as the unresolved leadership question at the central level and the absence of an emotive issue to galvanize its supporters.

Since Rajnath Singh has failed to measure up to expectations as a national leader, his predecessor in the party president's post, L.K. Advani, has started reasserting himself. But doubts whether he will be the party's prime ministerial candidate have been reinforced by a mysterious, unsigned missive in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's name, which was sent to a recent party conclave, suggesting that the ageing and ailing former prime minister hasn't yet called it a day.

What is more, the manner in which former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie led the charge against the Manmohan Singh government on the India-US nuclear deal gave the impression that neither Rajnath Singh nor Advani is capable of calling the shots. This belief was strengthened when Advani was forced to backtrack when he proposed a softer line on the deal.

What these developments mean is that not only is the leadership question wide open at the senior most level, there is also no unanimity on who are the front runners in the younger generation. The problem is compounded by the fact that the field is quite crowded in the rungs below Vajpayee and Advani.

The contenders in this group include Arun Jaitley, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Sushma Swaraj, apart from Rajnath Singh and former party presidents Murli Manohar Joshi and Venkaiah Naidu.

The leadership question wouldn't have mattered much if the BJP could base its campaign on an emotive issue, such as the temple agitation in the 1990s. For a time, the sethu seemed to provide the party with one. But since this issue has more or less fizzled out, the party is unable to make its presence felt in a big way, especially because the Left is grabbing all the headlines on the nuclear deal.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com  


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