Hindu religious leaders inclined towards the Congress are trying to grab the leadership of the movement and embarrass the BJP government ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.


New Delhi: The Congress has put Hindu religious leaders inclined towards it on the job of creating a leadership tussle within the Ram temple movement, which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has been spearheading so far, claim insiders in the party. This fact became quite evident when the Shankaracharya of Dwarka, Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, known for his Congress leanings, set 21 February as the date for beginning construction of the temple and dared the government to stop him. The insiders pointed out that a definite plan was being put in motion behind the scenes to hijack the movement from VHP’s hands.

The Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth, who also simultaneously heads the Jyotir Math in Badrinath and describes himself as the “supreme court of Hindus”, has announced that he will lead a march from Prayagraj, where the Kumbh Mela is being held presently, to Ayodhya on 10 February and lay the foundation stone for the Ram temple there on 21 February. Ground reports suggest that some of his followers have even started reaching Ayodhya.

Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, a key disciple of the 95-year-old Shankaracharya, has already arrived at Janki Ghat in Ayodhya with 50 more saints. “I have reached Ayodhya early to make preparations for the shilanyas (stone-laying ceremony) of Ram Mandir. We will go ahead with the plan as announced by Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati,” he told the media there.

Swami Swaroopanand is not new to controversies. Called the “Congress Swami”, he has been a vocal campaigner for the Congress in elections and on most issues close to the grand old party’s heart. All the more, when Sonia Gandhi took a holy dip at the last Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj (then known as Allahabad) in January 2001, amid opposition to her because of her foreign origin, it was Swaroopanand who defended her right to become Prime Minister of India, while declaring that “she is every inch an Indian”.

The burly Swami has been proactive on the Ayodhya front earlier also, always challenging VHP’s hold on the matter. He even encouraged Sonia Gandhi to take on the saffron forces on the temple issue. It was on his insistence that Sonia Gandhi, who was the Congress president then, organised a congregation of Hindu religious leaders at Dighauri near Seoni in Madhya Pradesh in February 2002, taking an independent line on the dispute.

If Swaroopanand chooses to continue with his plan of doing a shilanyas in Ayodhya, it will come as a huge embarrassment for the BJP governments in the state as well as at the Centre. The Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh will be in a Catch-22 situation—whether or not to take action against the Swami and his followers. Either way, Swaroopanand’s popularity among Ram devotees will go up. Kalki Peethadheeshwar, Acharya Pramod Krishnam, who is a former Congress MP, too has been pressed into service in this matter.

The Congress game plan is to snatch the leadership of the movement this way. Should the Supreme Court rule in favour of a temple at the disputed site, the Ramalaya Trust headed by Swami Swaroopanand can take charge of its construction, instead of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas run by the VHP. Thus, the Congress, some of whose leaders have been trying to delay the construction of the temple incessantly, and has succeeded in it to a considerable extent, now plans to garner the credit in case the temple is built in the future.

However, observers feel that it is extremely unlikely that the Congress will ever be in a position to take advantage of any situation, given its UPA-era “anti-Hindu image” among the general public. On the other hand, the Sangh Parivar—led by the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh and comprising the VHP and BJP—is so much identified with the movement that no Ram devotee will ever think of switching his loyalties, although a section of them is a bit sore over VHP deferring it, those close to the BJP stated.

Observers also see some fissiparous elements making a sinister move against the nation by fostering communal frenzy and creating disturbances to the extent of conducting organised riots over the issue. The recent comments of the US intelligence head in his submission to a powerful panel confirm this apprehension.

In a written statement to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats has said that “parliamentary elections in India increase the possibility of communal violence if BJP stresses nationalist themes”. Coats made the statement as part of the US intelligence community’s assessment of worldwide threats in 2019.

“We judge that cross-border terrorism, firing across the Line of Control (LoC), divisive national elections in India, and Islamabad’s perception of its position with the United States relative to India will contribute to strained India-Pakistan relations at least through May 2019, the deadline for the Indian election, and probably beyond,” he added.

Coats made this assessment with the assistance of a few other prominent members, including CIA director Gina Haspel, who has just returned from a trip to India, FBI director Christopher Wray and Defense Intelligence Agency director Robert Ashley, who were also present in the Senate meeting.

Observers are of the view that realisation of the high risks involved perhaps forced the VHP to postpone the movement till the general elections are over. Though it has not set any date for beginning the construction, its leaders have been saying that it will definitely start after four months. Till that time, the VHP-led movement will remain in suspended animation unless anything untoward happens in Ayodhya on 21 February, they conclude.

BJP president Amit Shah has reiterated the party’s commitment to the cause. Making it amply clear that the temple issue is on the top of their agenda, he described the Narendra Modi government’s move to file a plea in the Supreme Court to return the excess land as “historic”. “The BJP government has decided to give the land, which was acquired in 1993, back to Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, and I request Opposition parties not to be an obstacle in the course,” he told the media recently.

Meanwhile, a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the acquisition of the adjoining land to the disputed site in Ayodhya on the grounds that the “Parliament has no legislative competence to take over/acquire the property belonging to the State” and it is violative of Article 25 of the Constitution.

The Apex Court has also cancelled the 29 January hearing in the Ayodhya dispute due to non-availability of Justice S.A. Bobde, a member of the recently reconstituted five-judge Constitution Bench, to hear the appeals. No new date has as yet been fixed in this regard by the court.