That the Bharatiya Janata Party and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi invoked Lord Ram at an election meeting in Faizabad, the twin city of Ayodhya, was no surprise at all. The real surprise was that Mr. Modi and his party had chosen not to make the construction of the Ram Mandir — at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya — one of the central points of their campaign so far. With a picture of Lord Ram and the proposed temple forming the backdrop to the stage, Mr. Modi could not have politically passed up the opportunity to mention Ram in his speech. But the legal consequences are as clear as the political calculations: under Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, the “use of or appeal to religious symbols” shall be deemed as a corrupt practice. Even if Mr. Modi is seen as not having directly asked the people to vote on the basis of their religion, despite his repeated references to Lord Ram and Ram Rajya, the heavy use of religious symbols on the dais as part of the campaign for the furtherance of the prospects of the candidate may well have contravened the provisions of the Act. Although the Congress has asked the Election Commission to register a first information report against Mr. Modi and de-register the BJP as a political party, corrupt practices as defined under the Act can be agitated only in an election petition before the High Court. The EC has sought a report from the Faizabad district authorities on Mr. Modi’s May 5 rally, but serious action will have to wait until after the election.
Although the Ram Mandir issue has cropped up only on the last day of the campaign for the penultimate phase, the Faizabad rally is one of the markers of the slow shift of the BJP campaign from issues of development to subjects that have formed the core of the Hindutva agenda. Uttar Pradesh, with 80 seats, is crucial to the fortunes of the BJP, and Mr. Modi and his advisers evidently view communalisation of the discourse as the surest way to undo the caste mobilisation of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. When the stakes are high, the BJP seems willing to take greater risks, bordering on the violation of the law and the Model Code of Conduct. If the BJP’s core Hindutva agenda is on the backburner, it is only because of the perceived need to reach out to sections beyond its traditional support base. The party wants to appeal to different sections in different ways, including to some sections in democratically and legally unacceptable ways. As the front-runner in this election, the BJP and its leaders must show greater responsibility and political maturity in taking up sensitive and divisive issues even in the heat and desperation of a campaign.