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What developments in the Ram Temple lawsuit tell us about Congress, BJP

The fact that the twists and turns in the Ayodhya case still so easily turn political, a full 25 years after the Babari demolition, only underlines the massive significance of the event that has shaped Indian politics for over decades now. The ongoing campaigns of the two principal adversaries for the Gujarat Assembly election are increasingly flagging community, caste and identity and Wednesday’s events in the Supreme Court have resulted in these efforts getting a fillip though that does not mean, as some have taken to believing, that their opposing narratives on development have not been interwoven into their respective campaigns. This latest round of political calisthenics has been sparked by senior Congress leader and former Union Minister Kapil Sibal, appearing in his capacity as a senior advocate for litigant Iqbal Ansari in the Ayodhya lawsuit, submitting to the Supreme Court that it should defer the matter till July 2019, that is till after the next General Election. The apex court rightly rejected the plea and the hearing continues with the next date in February. It is interesting to note, however, how the BJP and the Congress have reacted to these developments and what is tells us about their political priorities, strengths and weaknesses.

The Congress has some grounds for feeling hard done by, given that it is not usually the practice in Indian politics to make an issue of what a party leader who also happens to be a lawyer by profession may have stated/submitted in court appearing on behalf of his client. But that’s where the rub is, because even Sibal’s client Ansari, who is one of the litigants along with others including the Sunni Wakf Board who are referred to as the ‘Muslim parties’ in the title suit, told the media that he had not instructed Sibal to make the plea and was not aware that such a submission would be made on his behalf. Ansari, was, however, quick to add that he had no objection to what Sibal said. Sunni Waqf Board member and litigant, Haji Mehboob, however, spent most of Wednesday telling the media he was against what Sibal said and that a quick legal resolution to the Ayodhya issue was in the interest of the country, adding that he was praying for an early order even if it went against his side and hinting that Sibal’s political provenance may have led him to make the submission. He did backtrack, though, later in the evening, apparently ‘persuaded’ by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other members of the waqf board backing Sibal. But by then there was enough ammunition for the Prime Minister to allude to the perception that the Congress was in cahoots with Muslim organisations and that it was a settled practice of the Opposition party to delay resolution of contentious issues in the national interest for political and/or electoral benefits, a charge, ironically, which till Tuesday the Congress was making against the BJP on the Ram Temple issue which it alleged the ruling party wanted to keep on the boil to polarise the electorate. The goings-on in and outside Court on Wednesday also reinforce the assessment of many independent observers that the Congress has patented the dilatory tactic of insisting that there are cut-and-dried legal solutions to political issues such as Ayodhya. For the BJP, which is feeling the pressure of a sustained Congress campaign in Gujarat premised on a caste-community coalition that has raised lack of employment opportunities, GST/demonetization fallout and farmer/small trader distress, the counter to the Congress’ caste-community coalition is clear in Amit Shah’s “shameful posturing by Congress on Ram Temple” statement hours after Sibal’s submission; and data-driven ripostes to the criticism it faces on development issues are now likely to be woven into this narrative for the remainder of the campaign.

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