The high-octane inauguration-cum-launch of several religio-tourism projects at the Somnath Temple, Gujarat on 20 August was a move on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's part to stake personal claim in 'restoring past glory' of the centuries-old temple complex, as well as an event aimed to keep the Hindutva pot boiling by picking a low hanging fruit.
Although the principal argument of the Hindutva brigade's flagship Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, launched with in the early 1980s, has its genesis in the Somnath temple and its reconstruction after Independence, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or any of its predecessors – either organisations or individuals – had little role in the process.
Within the BJP and the sangh parivar, the leader with the most visible 'connection' with the temple was Lal Krishna Advani, for having started his first Rath Yatra to Ayodhya from Somnath in September 1990.
Advani was the first leader to connect Somnath with the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya and bring this ancient shrine back into the national political discourse. Modi made merely a special appearance in this episode that altered India and BJP's political narratives, as coordinator of the Gujarat-leg of the yatra.
After 'immortalising' his role in the construction of the Ram temple, despite having played little part in the agitation for it, by performing Bhoomi Pujan in Ayodhya in August 2020, Modi has now marked a 'day' in history (whose anniversary can be celebrated henceforth) for his 'role' by inaugurating and virtually performing the ground-breaking ceremony for the proposed Parvati Temple near the main temple.
No End to Grandiosity and Vanity
The Somnath temple's reconstruction was completed in 1951 and was considered a 'completed' project till 2014, when the Somnath Temple was added to the list of 41 religious destinations and shrines to be developed under this government's initiative, the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spirituality Augmentation Drive (PRASHAD) scheme.
There is actually no end to grandiosity and vanity.
From a truly inwardly exhilarating sensation (call it spiritual if you may) of standing at a spot, rear of the main temple, overlooking the Arabian Sea and sensing nothing but an expanse of ocean with no speck of land between you and the South Pole, one will now have an imposing promenade to walk on and experience this unique marvel.
It is all about occupying space and marking presence in a grand, awe-inspiring fashion.
India's first President, Rajendra Prasad, contentiously inaugurated the Somnath Temple in May 1951. In his address Prasad stated: "The reconstruction of Somnath will be completed on the day when along with the huge temple on its foundation, the grand building of a prosperous India will also be ready, the building of a prosperous India."
In his speech, Modi said the event marked the "transformation" of Somnath and that he played a part in "taking forward the efforts of Sardar Saheb (Vallabhai Patel) by giving new grandeur to the Somnath temple in the 75th year of Independence."
Would it not have a been truer practice of raj dharma to transform people's lives for the better and pave pathways for the pandemic-ravaged millions, enabling them to rebuild lives and not just keeping them dependent on dole in the form free-food rations to secure their votes?
Customarily, Jawaharlal Nehru – the name of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is slipped in too for the effect his 'identity' has on the listener – is negatively part of the Hindutva lore on Somnath. He was opposed to the temple's reconstruction, it is publicised.
The whole truth, however, is that Nehru wrote to Prasad on hearing of the President's plan to be present at the inaugural: "Personally, I thought this was no time to lay stress on large-scale building operations at Somnath. This could have been done gradually and more effectively later."
Nehru's argument on appropriate priorities remained valid even in August 2020, when Modi performed the ritual in Ayodhya, and is fitting even now in post-COVID-19 India.
But then, ensuring victory at the forthcoming elections remains this regime's principal objective. This can be realised only by presenting to people a set of accomplishments or achievements that are easier to complete, than more complicated matters like national and personal economies of people, their health, and education.
Besides the Assembly polls in five states, including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, in the first half of 2022, state elections are also due in Modi's home state Gujarat in November-December and in Himachal Pradesh prior to that. The year 2023 is again a year of significant state elections and by the end of that round, the countdown will begin for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Like the Ram temple, Somnath projects also facilitate Modi and the massive publicity machinery at his disposal to convey to people that this is a great civilisational moment, that the government's 'shortcomings' on vital issues can be overlooked because it has enabled the 'mute' to find their voice.
It is of little concern that sentiments and fears of the minority remain unaddressed because they have been rendered electorally irrelevant.
A Conscious Choice
Nehru was also against Prasad inaugurating the temple because he believed that State and religion needed to be separated, a pursuit which has disappeared with Modi actually being jajman of religious rituals in his capacity as prime minister.
It should not be missed that for someone who has consistently sung paeans to Mahatma Gandhi, there was no reference to the Father of the Nation although Modi pointed out that "great men like Rajendra Prasad ji, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and KM Munshi encountered difficulties in this campaign even after Independence."
This was not an inadvertent slip but a conscious choice because Gandhi's position on Somnath is a tad awkward for the Hindutva votaries: "Let the people, and not the government bear the expenditure (for constructing the temple)," Gandhi is known to have said.
In the case of the Somnath promenade or Samudra Darshan Path, it has been constructed at a cost of Rs 47 crore and the money has come from the central government’s ministry of tourism's PRASHAD scheme.
Whatever be the occasion and if Modi speaks, how can there not be a political facet to his speech. In this instance, he mentioned "evil forces which conjure of establishing an empire on the basis of terror" and how these "dominate for some time during a particular period, but their existence is never permanent, they cannot suppress humanity for a long time."
This is a loaded assertion and can allude to much beyond, national and international, the over-simplistic and one-dimensional Hindu nationalistic historical account of Somnath.
The reading of this contention, however, must be done with his majoritarian perspective on one of his catchy slogans – Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat: "Our Char Dhams (four abodes)," Modi contended, "the concept of our 56 Shakti Peethas (holy places of cosmic power), the establishment of different pilgrimage centres across the country is actually an expression of the spirit of 'Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat."
Further ahead, the prime minister made his case of how his government has married religion with tourism and listed the Ramayana and Buddhist circuits. But are these the only faiths in India?
Or are some shrines of other faiths, including those whose believers are "construed" as Hindus under Article 25(2) of the Constitution, included in the PRASHAD list as an act of tokenism and are not to be publicly mentioned?
Completing or launching any Somnath project is a low hanging fruit because of the BJP's complete dominance of the polity in Gujarat. Furthermore, Modi is the head of the Somnath Trust and Amit Shah one of its members.
Yet, Modi remains sceptical of this tactic continuing to work electorally. His hope clearly lies in "the traditions of our country (which) inspire us to come out of the difficult times, leave behind our sufferings and move forward."
The suffering being referred to in this case is certainly not that of "1,200 years of slavery" that is mentioned ad nauseam to push the Hindutva prejudice-promoting narrative, but the distress and misery faced by millions due to the government's abject failure in enabling people to cope and recover from the pandemic.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)