The Congress party's Bharat Jodo Yatra being spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi, received support from unexpected quarters, with several pro-Hindutva voices praising it.
Those who expressed support for the Yatra include: chief priest of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, Acharya Satyendra Das, Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Champat Rai who is also the general secretary of the Ram Janmabhoomi trust, the trust's treasurer Mahant Govind Dev Giri and Mahant Sanjay Das of the Hanuman Garhi Temple in Ayodhya.
Interestingly, these comments were followed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah's statement accusing the Congress of "delaying the construction of the Ram temple" and promising that the construction will be completed by 1 January 2024.
What explains this sudden show of support? Does it really mean warning bells for BJP as some reports have argued?
There are several layers to this.
This article will try and bring out these layers based on conversations with functionaries in the VHP, RSS and the Uttar Pradesh Congress. Some of the insights are also from conversations from before the Bharat Jodo Yatra and have been included because they are relevant in this context.
1. All Voices of Support from Ayodhya Aren't the Same
The names mentioned above are all from Ayodhya and broadly from a Hinduvadi worldview. However, it would not be accurate to club them all together.
For instance Mahant Sanjay Das of Hanuman Garhi is the successor to Mahant Gyan Das, one of the most prominent priests in Ayodhya. Sanjay Das conveyed Mahant Gyan Das' "blessings" for Rahul Gandhi and the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Though deeply committed to the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Mahant Gyan Das has often taken an independent stand on several issues and has occasionally criticised the BJP for its political use of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue.
Even before the Ayodhya verdict, Mahant Gyan Das favoured resolution of the dispute through consensus and has on occasions publicly criticised the manner in which Babri Masjid was demolished. "The temple should be built without any blemish or bloodshed," has been his stand.
He is even known to have funded the construction of a mosque in Ayodhya.
Due to his independent stand, Mahant Gyan Das has been someone who non-BJP leaders reach out to in Ayodhya. Rahul Gandhi met Mahant Gyan Das and Mahant Sanjay Das in 2016 so it was no surprise that they were invited for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Mahant Gyan Das has also praised Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav in the past. Arvind Kejriwal also met him in 2021.
Therefore Mahant Gyan Das and Mahant Sanjay Das' may be important individuals, no doubt. But their support for the Bharat Jodo Yatra can't be considered representative of a larger trend in the Hindutva ecosystem.
Acharya Satyendra Das, who wrote a letter conveying his blessings to Rahul Gandhi, is a different case. The priest of the Ram Mandir, he often claims to speak on behalf of Ram Lalla after "discussions" with the deity.
Even in his letter on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he conveyed not just his but also Ram Lalla's blessings to Rahul Gandhi.
Satyendra Das is not a rebel like Mahant Gyan Das. However, he isn't a rubber stamp either. In the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, he gave a statement saying that he was happy CM Yogi Adityanath wasn't contesting from Ayodhya as people whose homes and shops were demolished due to temple construction were upset with him.
"It's good that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is not contesting from here. I had suggested it earlier and advised that it will be better that he contest from any seat of Gorakhpur. I speak after asking Ram Lalla. I spoke with Ram Lalla's inspiration," he had said.
Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Satyendra Das had criticised the VHP and BJP for politically using the Ram Mandir issue without ensuring the construction of the temple.
Of course, his position changed after the Ram Mandir verdict and the beginning of the temple construction. He went on to say that "BJP is the only party that cares for the Ram Temple".
The point here is that just as criticism of the BJP didn't necessarily mean a shift away from it, praising the Congress also doesn't mean a break-up with the BJP. This would hold true of Champat Rai and Govind Dev Giri as well.
However, their support is no doubt significant as, at the very least, it signals a thaw in relations with the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. Why has this thaw taken place and what meaning should we read out of it? We'll discuss this in the next section.
What Explains Their Support?
Now, it is not as if Rahul Gandhi or the Congress made a very direct overture to the pro-Hindutva side during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, besides sending a few invitations. However, throughout the Yatra, Gandhi has been respectful of Hindu symbols.
On 3 January, the day he resumed the Yatra in Delhi and marched towards Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi began his day from the Hanuman temple at Kashmere Gate.
He could very well have begun it from the AICC headquarters, India Gate, Rajghat or any other place of political or religious importance. However, he began it from this temple, which makes for interesting optics.
Part of the support from some pro-Hindutva people stems from the idea of a pan-India Yatra itself and this physical test that it involves.
One of the first pro-Hindutva voices to openly praise Rahul Gandhi and the Bharat Jodo Yatra was French-origin Hindutva ideologue Francois Gautier. On 11 December, Gautier tweeted:
Then again he wrote on 25 December:
Gautier's view isn't reflective of any Hindutva organisation. But he is an important part of the the Hindutva social media and intellectual ecosystem. His tweets did indicate that the Bharat Jodo Yatra had generated some buzz for Rahul Gandhi in this ecosystem. At the very least, the negativity towards him had reduced a bit.
Even Champat Rai's praise was on similar lines, "He is walking every day in harsh weather. It must be appreciated".
The reduction in negative sentiment towards Gandhi can be seen even among lay Hindutva supporters.
"I am still anti-Congress and will probably be till I die. But seeing Rahul Gandhi go on foot from Kanyakumari to North India at least showed me that he is also driven by nationalist principles. He wants to understand the real India and become a better politician. One really can't have an issue with that," a Swayamsevak based in Karnataka told The Quint.
However, there is more to the comments coming from prominent individuals in the Hindutva ecosystem like Champat Rai, Govind Dev Giri and Satyendra Das do have more political importance than just a reduction in negativity. They need to be seen from the point of view of Uttar Pradesh's political context.
There is a sense among many Hindutva leaders in Uttar Pradesh that even though there is no question of moving away from the BJP, it would be good if the Congress gets strengthened as an Opposition force in the state.
There are multiple reasons for this.
One is of course that the Congress has historically engaged with these organisations. Elements within the Congress were prominent votaries of the Ram Temple in the 1980s, not to mention Rajiv Gandhi beginning his election campaign from Ayodhya.
Another major reason is caste.
"Unlike caste based parties, Congress doesn't try to divide Hindu society. It views Hindu society in a different way, which we have a problem with. But at least it doesn't try to divide," a VHP leader had told this reporter during the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections.
This is a very common argument among Hindutva sympathisers in UP, that the SP and BSP stand for "domination of one caste group and Muslims".
Another argument that is often made by Brahmin Hindutva-leaning intellectuals in particular, is that as long as parties like SP and BSP exist, the BJP would be "compelled to pander to caste politics". Therefore, they hope for a revival of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
This posturing among Brahmins isn't new and happened before both the 2017 and 2022 Assembly polls. Though there was no perceptible shift of Brahmin votes away from the BJP, the idea of this posturing that "Brahmins are upset" was to send the signal that the community shouldn't be taken for granted.
In this context, a revival of the Congress - which dominated Brahmin votes till the 1980s - will give Brahmin leaders more leverage with the BJP.
And this leverage is important because the BJP is all set to make the Ram Mandir's completion a major election issue for 2024, especially given Amit Shah's announcement that the temple will be completed by 1 January 2024.
So in the end, it seems that one section of the Hindutva leadership in UP finds the Congress "useful" to undercut the social justice based parties as well as gain greater bargaining power with respect to the BJP.
It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work - will the Congress manage to revive in Uttar Pradesh and if it does, at whose expense?