How Advani’s Rath Yatra Rescued the BJP From Mandal

On BJP’s 38th Foundation Day, a look at how BJP flipped the conversation from caste and quota to religion and Ram. 

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(This video was first published on 6 April 2018, and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foundation day.)

“Raam naam jaadu aisa, Ram naam man bhaye. Man ki Ayodhya tab tak sooni, jab tak Ram na aaye re’ – a song from a popular Hindi film starring Nutan was on the cassette sent to Lal Krishna Advani by actor Manoj Kumar, just a day before he set out on his Rath Yatra.

A 10,000-km-long journey from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on an air-conditioned Toyota bus-turned-chariot, was the brainchild Pramod Mahajan, a rising star at the time among the ranks of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. The mission was to undertake a mass contact programme to help mobilise support to build a grand temple at Ayodhya, which some Hindus believe is where Ram was born.

Advani’s yatra would be high on symbolism, right from the ‘rath’ to the choice of Somnath Temple as the starting point for the yatra. The temple in Gujarat was a particularly coveted target for Mahmood of Ghazni – a Turkish Sultan who plundered India 17 times in a span of 25 years in AD 1001-26. The decision to pick the ‘Hindus only’ temple was heavy with religious and political symbolism.

In his autobiography, ‘My Country, My Life’, Advani traces the history of the restoration and rebuilding of the Somnath Temple. The Nawab of Junagadh defected to Pakistan leaving the Hindu-dominated province to India. The proposal to rebuild the temple was met with resistance from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad but Sardar Patel assumed an uncompromising stand on the matter and the proposal received the approval of the Nehru Cabinet.

What Necessitated the Rath Yatra

On 7 August 1990, Prime Minister VP Singh accepted the Mandal Commission Report which had been lying in cold storage for 10 years. The commission was constituted by the Morarji Desai government and given two extensions by the Indira Gandhi government “to determine the criteria for defining the socially and educationally backward classes”and “to recommend steps for their advancement.”

The mandate of the Mandal Commission was to identify socially and educationally backward classes. It recommended 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes – which were essentially non-Dalit lower caste Hindus, at all levels of government service. In effect, it meant 52% of the country’s population at the time was eligible for reservation in government institutions and departments.

The rest of them – upper caste Hindu and minority students – rose in protest against the government’s decision.

But when a 19-year-old Delhi University student, Rajeev Goswami, set himself on fire, the protests were no longer just the VP Singh government’s headache.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Quandry

In 1989, the party had contested its second general election and with the complete backing of the RSS its cadre on ground, it went from 2 to 85 seats in the Lok Sabha. Instead of entering into an alliance with the National Front, the BJP chose to provide outside support to the government and helped VP Singh become Prime Minister. So, while Advani and Vajpayee were not involved in day-to-day governance and policy making, they had the numbers to remove VP Singh as the Prime Minister and dissolve the government.

The BJP had to take a stand.

It could not support Mandal because it discriminated against their upper caste Hindu vote base. But it did not want to be seen to be against the lower castes who’d just been given a leg up by the government.

Party president LK Advani had to change the conversation from caste and quota to religion and Ram. Because that is what he thought would unite upper caste and lower caste Hindus – whom Mandal had thrown into conflict with each other.

Subsequently, Ram was chosen as the ideal man, Ayodhya the final destination, and a Ram Mandir, the ultimate goal.

How the Rath Yatra Ended

Just days before the Rath Yatra was to end in kar seva or volunteer work at Ayodhya, on 18 October 1990, first-time Chief Minister of Bihar Lalu Prasad Yadav stepped into arrest the BJP leader in Samastipur. At the time, Lalu was part of the Janata Dal, which was very much a part of the VP Singh-led National Front government at the Centre. On his orders, Advani was kept in an undisclosed location for a week so the movement could fizzle out.

Naturally, the BJP withdrew support from the Centre, necessitating snap polls. The country was left politically unstable and communally divided.

For the next two years, the BJP remained in opposition while the RSS and its affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad lent momentum to the Ram Mandir movement.

Advani’s rath yatra set in motion a series of events which not only resulted in the demolition of the Babri Masjid two years later, but also re-defined the country’s politics.

It did away with the textbook notion of secularism and created “nationalist” and “secular” goalposts, the definitions of which continue to evolve today.

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