The Hindutva parivar has adopted a strikingly moderate tone ahead of the court verdict on the Ayodhya title suit.

A curious “low phase” has followed the announcement of September 24, 2010 as the date for the Allahabad (Lucknow bench) High Court decision on the consolidated Ayodhya title suit. While Muslims have consistently favoured judicial adjudication of the title dispute, the difference this time is the strikingly moderate tone adopted by the Hindutva parivar. Forget ratcheting up passions or revving into an overdrive on agitational or celebratory programmes, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological mentor have consciously eschewed provocative postures.

The parivar could have used the run-up to the verdict to resurrect the fire-and-brimstone imagery of Ayodhya. The BJP has been in desperate need of something, anything, to stir up its dormant workforce. The party has been hankering for an issue that would sharpen its fighting reflexes and revive its electoral fortunes. It could have seized the upcoming verdict as just that issue.

And yet the responses of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh suggest a definite shying away from the kind of reckless, fire-spewing politics that has been their hallmark up until now. The decision as of now is that any programme that follows from the verdict will be spearheaded by the sants and mahants, with the BJP conspicuously taking a backseat. The BJP has refused to be rushed into making comments or announcements. Sushma Swaraj's single refrain thus far has been “all comments after the judgment.”

The RSS has similarly avoided inflammatory rhetoric. At a recent meet with Delhi-based women journalists, the Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, went through the motions, said the expected things about a “grand temple” at the Ram Janmabhoomi and so forth but, very significantly, added that either way the aggrieved party would appeal to the Supreme Court. As the countdown to the verdict began, the parivar further softened its stand. “There will be no knee-jerk reaction if the decision goes against us. We will decide on the future course of action while respecting the court judgment,” said a senior RSS functionary.

The phrases and words used here — “no knee-jerk reaction,” “respect for court verdict,” etc. — would be unfamiliar to those who have tracked the parivar's evocative vocabulary through the tortuous course of the Ayodhya movement. Indeed, in the past, if anyone so much as uttered the word “court”, parivar affiliates, including the BJP, would erupt in rage, arguing that there was no question of the court deciding on the whys and wherefores of the Ram temple. This, despite the contrarian position held by parties to the dispute.

Reacting to applications in the High Court for the deferment of the verdict, the Hindu Mahasabaha, one of the parties to the dispute, said earlier this week: “It appears that the present application [for deferment] has been filed by some disgruntled elements who do not believe in the majesty of law for their personal gains.”

No longer a political weapon

To the Sangh, it did not matter that other Hindu organisations held a different view. It held steadfastly to the “no-interference-by-the-court” position, which only suggests that within the larger parivar, there has been a more realistic re-appraisal of the pros and cons of taking the Ayodhya movement forward. The decision to go easy on the melodrama appears to be rooted in the following reasons. With the protagonists of the Ayodhya cause badly dispersed and some going into virtual oblivion, the movement has lost its fire. Secondly, while Ayodhya may still have a certain resonance with the Sangh rank and file, it has long since ceased to be a political weapon that the BJP can exploit. Finally, the BJP has to reckon with allies who are increasingly impatient with its temple pro-activism. It just cannot lose more members from the already haemorrhaging National Democratic Alliance.

Consider the current status of the Ayodhya warriors. At age 83, Lal Krishna Advani, who flagged off the movement with his rousing “do or die” speeches from atop the Ram rath is a shadow of his fiery Ayodhya persona. His authority and powers have drastically diminished after he led the BJP to defeat in 2009. Kalyan Singh, the “hero” of December 6, 1992, is a parody of himself, having waltzed in and out of the BJP, and repeatedly altered and re-altered his position on the temple. There cannot be a more clinching evidence of his irrelevance than the monumental flopping of his September 16 “show of strength” in the temple town.

Sadhvi Rithambhara of the ek dhakka aur do (give another push to the Babri Masjid) fame is languishing in an ashram somewhere. Uma Bharti whose joyous pose with Murli Manohar Joshi became the piece-de-resistance of December 6, 1992, has to be hunted with a microscope. Vinay Katiyar, the irrepressible founding chief of the “forever-in-battle mode” Bajrang Dal, has moved to a senior position in the BJP and has acquired an elegant facebook profile. His last entry in this unrecognisable avatar was an earnest appeal for a negotiated settlement outside the court, with “respect for the court judgment” added as a bonus. “We would respect the court judgment. The party in whose favour the verdict comes would sit quiet while the other moves the Supreme Court,” he said.

An entire generation has grown up since the Babri Masjid was brutally torn down in 1992. This generation has no institutional memory of the movement, its muscular build-up and its cataclysmic end. Liberalisation and high-tech have sharpened the entrepreneurial instincts of the merchant class that formed the BJP's core vote. It would want a grand Ram temple but not at the cost of its flourishing businesses. At the Haridwar Khumbh Mela in January-February this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad drew up a blue-print for a programme of mass participation ahead of the title suit verdict. Under the plan, VHP and RSS workers were to drum up support for the Ram Mandir through signature collection, visits to individual homes and recitation of the Hanuman chalisa at 8,000 selected temples across the country.

Muted support

This writer visited a sample temple in Delhi's Shalimar Bagh to find almost no interest in the VHP's programme. Devotees were at prayer as usual, most of them unaware that there was a sub-text to the Hanuman chalisa they were chanting. A gentleman introduced by a VHP office-bearer ended up praising Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. There was broad support for the mandir but it was muted and it was clear enough that nobody had the stomach for another “fight to the finish” war.

Even assuming there is a re-awakening of Hindu passions post the verdict, the question arises: Who will lead the mass movement? Ms Swaraj and Arun Jaitley are superb parliamentarians, with an unmatched ability to argue their case and demolish their opponents. But it is difficult to see either of them wade through the slush in Ayodhya and recreate the heady days of the rath yatra. It is even more difficult to picture the gregarious Nitin Gadkari in the role of a Ram champion waging a righteous war.

This is besides the waning political appeal of Ayodhya, demonstrated in election after election. The BJP won its last State election in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 — 19 years ago. Within a year of the homicidal 1992 attack on the Babri Masjid, the BJP had lost power to resurgent caste interests represented by the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine. The BJP did form governments subsequently in collaboration with the BSP but each time it aligned with Mayawati's party, its graph plunged.

Ayodhya continued to matter in the Lok Sabha elections until 1998 — when the BJP reached its peak. However, 1998 was a watershed year for the party in another respect too. It formed a government at the Centre with a dozen or so allies who insisted that the BJP put Ayodhya on the back burner. With Ayodhya gone into hibernation, the BJP took a further tumble in U.P. In the 2009 general election, it finished last in its favourite State.

Passions can get out of hand, and one would have to be very brave to predict with any certainty that the parivar cadre will restrain their emotions when the verdict is actually delivered. Violence on that day cannot be ruled out. But equally the BJP must be aware that each time it experiments with sectarianism, it gains a few hardline supporters but loses far more of the electorally crucial middle ground.

The party was badly isolated in December 1992. It watched half of the NDA walk out in the years after Gujarat 2002. And post Kandhamal, it lost the support of the valued Biju Janata Dal, and came close to losing the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), currently its largest partner. The JD(U) and the BJP are jointly fighting the Bihar elections scheduled to start next month. And if there is one thing Mr. Kumar will absolutely not have, it is any kind of adventurism on Ayodhya. He said as much to Mr. Jaitley: “The court verdict must be accepted. Any aggrieved party can move the higher court.”

Since the BJP and the RSS are talking the same language today, they have an added responsibility to keep Ayodhya and India trouble free in the coming days.