By Swapan Dasgupta
Anticipating the possible fallout of developments involving an issue as deeply contentious as the long-standing dispute in Ayodhya is hazardous. Yet, whatever the Allahabad High Court decides on Friday afternoon, there are at least two certitudes.
First, as indicated by the Cabinet resolution of September 16, the authorities will encourage seeing the verdict in its "proper perspective", as "part of a judicial process". In other words, an appeal to the Supreme Court by the losing side is more or less obligatory. Returning the mandir-masjid dispute to the judicial slow cooker will ensure that any resolution (if this is at all possible) of this delicate problem will be put off till another day. For the moment, the pujas of Ram lalla won't be disturbed.
Secondly, despite the understandable fear of civil strife in the aftermath of the verdict, it is unlikely that either the Commonwealth Games or Bihar elections will be marred by riots. There may well be some localised disturbances but nothing remotely on the scale of the post-demolition troubles in 1992-93. Any rise in the emotional temperature has to be preceded by religious and political mobilisation. As of now, and for a variety of reasons, there are no indications that India is in a mood to revert to sectarian conflict in a big way. This equanimity may well be temporary but as of now it is real.
That the verdict is likely to be greeted with anodyne observations about the "majesty of the law", the "triumph of Constitutionalism" and so on is not to suggest that it will be a non-event. The verdict will inevitably trigger a ferment whose impact will take some time to be felt.
The Congress, which has bitter memories of being derailed by Ayodhya in the 1990s, is understandably nervous about another round of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. General Secretary Digvijay Singh's endorsement of a negotiated settlement—an approach identified with the now-reviled P.V. Narasimha Rao and, subsequently, the NDA Government—would indicate that the Congress is loath to confront a situation where one side nurtures a grievance while the other side gloats triumphantly.
If the Congress is uneasy about the turn of events after September 24, the BJP is on the edge. It has reposed hope in a judicial endorsement of its claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a pre-existing Hindu temple. This would not only establish the moral legitimacy of the movement it so successfully led, but would offset any possible adverse ruling on the title suit. Whatever the judicial pronouncement on the issue of 'adverse possession', if the archaeological and historical evidence are found to be weighed in favour of the Hindu claimants, it would make it extremely difficult to consider shifting the makeshift Ram temple from the 'garba griha' of the erstwhile Babri Masjid.
Politically, a judicial victory would allow the BJP to make the strategic shift it has been attempting since 1998: easing out its image as an exclusivist Hindu party. There is recognition in the BJP that the Ram temple movement has lost its cutting edge in the age of coalitions and economic growth, and is best left to the sadhus and the VHP. A judicial victory in the Ayodhya dispute will enable the BJP to move on, honourably.
A Hindu win on Friday will, paradoxically, facilitate the evolution of the BJP as a conventional, right-of-centre party. In time, if it responds to the emerging India, it could well emerge as the party of aspirations, an alternative to the Congress' politics of entitlements. If Ayodhya is out of the way, the "New BJP" that L.K. Advani once alluded to in 1998 could take shape in the years ahead, with the RSS assuming the role of a stakeholder, not sole proprietor.
However, if the bush telegraph is any indication, the BJP should also be prepared for an adverse verdict on Friday. True, the RSS chief has asserted that in the event of a judicial setback the Sangh Parivar will appeal to the Supreme Court and not deviate from the Constitutional path. However, since the disappointment is certain to be profound, the TV channels may witness angry outbursts by BJP functionaries ranging from the ridiculous to the inflammatory. The party hasn't prepared the political script to handle adversity.
For the BJP the immediate challenge isn't likely to be Muslim triumphalism. In the event of an unfavourable verdict, it is certain to face assaults from two very different quarters. The first will emanate from secularists who will view the judgment as confirmation that BJP is a reckless and abnormal party that must be severely punished for wilfully transgressing the law. There may even be calls for a ban on saffron outfits.
The second assault will certainly be from hardliners who will charge the BJP with betrayal of Hindu interests. This may strike a chord among the recklessly committed and put pressure on the party to revert to Hindu identity politics. The BJP 'modernisers' will resist this regression but they are likely to find the going tough in the face of an emotional upheaval among those who function within ghettos. If the BJP succumbs, it will guarantee itself a place in the fringes.
Today's India seems disinclined to return to the age of sectarian confrontation. The Hindu middle classes that backed the Ram temple movement now have different priorities linked to economic growth. They will be loath to take needless risks in the quest for a Holy Grail.
There are two circumstances in which the mood could change. First, any attempt (now or subsequently) to change the denominational character of the disputed site is certain to invite fierce political resistance. Secondly, if the interregnum between the High Court and Supreme Court judgments trigger Muslim belligerence centred on either triumphalism or victimhood, it could provoke a countervailing response and re-energise Hindu atavism. The BJP could well profit but at an unacceptably high social cost.
This week, Ayodhya will again throw up many future possibilities. India will have to choose wisely.