Cong looks to alter perception on temple issue

New Delhi: The apparent shift in the Congress’s stand on Ayodhya — evident in its bid to outdo political rivals in hailing the construction of Ram temple — is widely attributed to its attempt to change the perception of being a pro-Muslim party — one reason for the party’s poor performance in the 2014 general elections according to a panel led by former defence minister AK Antony. The panel’s report concluded that fighting elections on the plan of secularism (versus communalism) hurt the Congress because it identified the party as pro-Muslims, resulting in substantial gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Congress, which has since been trying hard to change the image, maintained , in the run-up to the 2019 elections, that it would will abide by the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Ayodhya issue or support any negotiated settlement. The party was accused of practising soft Hindutva during this campaign, with then party President Rahul Gandhi’s temple runs seemingly proving this point.

Still, the Congress has never really been vocal in its support for the temple construction. Now, barring a few Congress leaders who have expressed reservations, albeit in private, most have struck a conciliatory tone.

In a tweet (in Hindi) on Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi called Lord Ram the ultimate embodiment of supreme human values and said that he stands for love, mercy and justice. He did not mention the bhoomi pujan (ground breaking) ceremony that marked the beginning of the temple construction in Ayodhya on Wednesday.

Rahul Gandhi’s sister and Congress general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on Tuesday hoped the groundbreaking ceremony in Ayodhya would be a celebration of national unity, brotherhood and cultural harmony.

In November, the Congress welcomed the Supreme Court verdict that paved the way for the temple construction and also sought to take credit for it. It insisted the Congress government at the Centre in 1993 acquired 67-acres of land near the disputed 2.77-acre site in Ayodhya. The Congress also highlighted that it was the Rajiv Gandhi government that allowed a shilanyas (ground-breaking ceremony) for the temple at an undisputed site close to Babri Masjid and also opened its doors in 1986.

The Congress’s stand was in line with a view of a section of leaders, especially from North India, that the party should talk openly about the 1986 shilanyas and the acquiring of the land to counter the BJP.

The PV Narasimha Rao government acquired the disputed site and the 67 acres around it through the passage of a law in 1993 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, in November unanimously passed a resolution, welcoming the Supreme Court judgment for the temple construction.

The issue came up for discussion at a meeting between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the party’s Rajya Sabha members on July 30. Deepender Singh Hooda, a Rajya Sabha member, cited the sentiments of millions of Indians at the meeting and argued Congress leaders should speak in one voice and stick to the CWC resolution.

Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath and Congress workers across the state recited Hanuman Chalisa, or devotional hymn to Lord Ram’s companion Hanuman, on Tuesday. The Congress government in neighbouring Chhattisgarh announced the development of three tourist circuits linked to Ram’s exile.

A Congress leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the suggestion that the party has moved from soft- to hard-Hindutva, saying Lord Ram “is a unifier, the protector and the voice of the oppressed and the deprived and assimilation of all cultures, castes, class and religions”.

“The nation and its people must now decide who depicts these values – the assimilating, cohabitating, all-inclusive ideology of the Congress party or the inherently divisive, hateful and parochial ideology of the BJP-RSS,” he added

Political analyst Professor Rajendra Sharma said the Congress lacks consistency in its stand. “The best course for the Congress should have been to stick to the CWC resolution which seemed to be well balanced. But it wants to be a part of majoritarian politics and was feeling left out,” said Sharma who heads the political sciences department at Rohtak-based Maharishi Dayanand University.

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