By initiating the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a landmark temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Ram early next month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be delivering on a promise BJP supporters have wanted to see fulfilled for decades.
It also has the potential to trigger a new narrative in domestic politics and possibly have a lasting impact on the national sentiment.
The narrative in 2020 so far isn’t much to talk about, with the country battling through a tough phase. Its $2.7-trillion economy is forecast to contract by up to double digits, and China has penetrated and occupied parts of its territory in Ladakh, denting the national pride.
On the Covid-19 front, India is the third-worst-affected country after the US and Brazil with 1.1 million cases and more than 40,000 new ones are being recorded every day. Unemployment is high and fresh investment remains subdued. States are still grappling with lockdowns for want of any other effective solution, hurting the economy even more.
Against this not-so-sanguine backdrop, construction of a new temple could usher in some refreshing changes, some observers say.
Modi is expected to officially commence work on the project in the ancient town of Ayodhya on August 5 by laying the first brick. Work was initially expected to commence on April 2, Lord Ram’s birthday, but the rapid spread of coronavirus and the subsequent countrywide lockdown forced a delay.
For the BJP and its Hindu nationalist supporters, building a Ram temple at the Ayodhya site will be a political dream come true. To be sure, this contentious issue has also helped the party to win election after election and form governments in New Delhi and many other states.
The Ram temple issue has been very high on the BJP’s agenda since its formation in 1980. It has been a hot issue in several national elections, polarizing voters. In December 1992, political workers climbed atop the disused mosque and damaged parts of it, triggering violent riots nationwide.
Another one of its goals was to strip Jammu & Kashmir of its special status. The Modi government achieved this by pushing constitutional amendments through parliament on August 5, 2019. Its special status was perceived as a historical wrong – a favor given to the country’s only Muslim majority state a few years after independence in 1947.
The Ayodhya dispute has its origins in medieval history. The first Mughal king Babur is believed to have destroyed the Ram temple around 1526 and built a mosque on the site. Backed by archaeological evidence, the Supreme Court judgment ruled in favor of the Hindus.
The temple is likely to have five domes with the central structure 40 meters high. It will be surrounded by scores of acres of land to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of devotees expected to congregate for festivals.
“The construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya will be completed within three to 3.5 years from the date its construction starts,” Live Mint reported, citing Champat Rai, general secretary of the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Tirth Kshetra Trust.
Some New Delhi-based political pundits are seeing red over the timing. A temple befitting more than 1.1 billion devotees being completed around the 2024 general elections could be used to galvanize the electorate, helping the incumbent, say critics.
A leader of the opposition Nationalist Congress Party, Sharad Pawar, questioned the timing.
“Some people think that building a Ram temple will eliminate corona,’’ Pawar told reporters in Solapur on Sunday. “Government should focus more on reviving the economy after the lockdown instead of the temple.’’
Pawar is a former defense and agriculture minister, and has been an elected representative in states and parliament for the past 53 years.
“We must decide what is important for us,” said Pawar.
As individual states battle to contain the coronavirus and migrant workers struggle to return to industrial towns to get back to work, the Indian economy may take time to recover.