The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will campaign in Faizabad constituency, which includes the temple town of Ayodhya, on Monday, May 5.
During his nine-month-long election campaign, Mr Modi, whose rivals have repeatedly accused him of being "commual," has refused to make the Ram Temple in Ayodhya or similar religious appeals a part of his poll pitch. He has stuck to development as his key mantra and has ensured that the temple and other pet projects of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS remain cosmetic elements in the BJP's poll manifesto.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS is the BJP's ideological mentor and heads the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella of Hindu nationalist organisations.
Mr Modi's rally in Faizabad will be the test. If the mandir or temple does not figure in Mr Modi's speech at ground zero, hardliners in the Sangh Parivar and voters who had in the past backed him for a strident Hindutva image, may be disappointed. Already, a section of hawks in the Parivar has been pushing for the inclusion of its core agendas with greater emphasis.
If he includes the temple issue with any degree of prominence, Mr Modi may please these hardliners but he stands the risk of letting Hindutva elements become part of his otherwise carefully sanitised campaign. His political rivals are waiting for that to happen. Mr Modi's development chant has made him an attractive option for young voters who have clearly indicated a distaste for appeals from the backyards of history.
A march back to the mandir in Faizabad will also unsettle regional political players who may be willing to consider Mr Modi, minus the mandir, an ally after the elections.
Some in the BJP admit that it's a Catch 22 situation - there could be trouble if he talks about the temple and trouble if he does not. Others are of the opinion that Mr Modi does not need to talk Hindutva as his RSS past and image as Gujarat Chief Minister are enough to keep the hardliners engaged.
The doves in the Parivar emphasise that any diversion in the campaign message will unleash confusion like a virus into the electoral system and undo the build-up Mr Modi has managed with his good governance promise.
Sources in the Sangh say that the mandir was an efficient catalyst for polarisation of voters till a decade ago, but has outlived its utility as a key electoral issue. Over the last several months, the Sangh has been working on a new, subtle polarisation plan.
It started with the Dharma Sansad at the Mahakumbh in Allahabad in early 2013. All the Sangh's organs, at a congregation of sadhus, decided to project Mr Modi. The gameplan was to let Mr Modi walk the development talk, while the Sangh would carry out a massive village-to-village, door-to-door campaign linking him to the Sangh's core agendas.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP, another prominent right-wing group which is part of the Sangh Parivar, started the build-up with its '84 kos' yatra plans. The crackdown by the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh was projected as a coming together of political forces against "Hindutva and rights of the majority".
Since March 2012, Sangh affiliates are said to have carried out a direct contact programme for Mr Modi across one lakh villages. On Friday afternoon, we found Sangh activists and sympathisers moving around in mohallahs (colonies) in Faizabad and adjoining districts like Basti, distributing pamphlets on the streets, knocking at the doors. Their appeal was for Mr Modi, but the message was religious.
While those who were part of the Ram Temple movement - like LK Advani, MM Joshi and Uma Bharti - have stayed away from Ayodhya, on Thursday, the BJP clearly indicated that Mr Modi and the riots in Muzaffarnagar are the new polarisers by dispatching Sangeet Som, one of the riot accused, to campaign in the area.
The Sangh's plan to actively polarise votes has a logic. In UP's political cauldron, the tyranny of caste politics had pushed the BJP to the fourth place in the seat tally behind the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Congress. The BJP knows that only religion as a vote-getter has the potential to break down the caste combinations that defeated the BJP.
With the rise of Mr Modi and the situation after the communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, the BJP has, through a well-crafted campaign, worked for a 'Modi vs the Rest' contest. It deputed Mr Modi's close aide, Amit Shah as the party's in-charge of Uttar Pradesh. The chances of Mr Modi becoming the prime minister triggered an unprecedented churning among the minority voters.
The Muzaffarnagar riots had weakened SP chief Mulayam Singh yadav's hold over UP's crucial 18 per cent minority voters. Players like Mayawati's BSP and the Congress rushed in for the kill. Mr Yadav, the old wrestler of UP politics, recovered and staked claim for the same pie.
The scramble for minority votes turned desperate when the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, met Congress President Sonia Gandhi before declaring his support for the party to strengthen secularism. The Samajwadi Party, which had swept UP in the 2012 assembly polls as nearly 70 per cent minority votes opted for the party, had been working at such an "ailaan" (decree) from religious heads. Last year, Mulayam Singh managed to get Maulana Tauqeer Raza, a senior cleric of "Barelvi Muslims", to delcare Mr Yadav as the "protector of secular values". But within two months, things went wrong and Mr Raza charged Mr Yadav with being "an RSS agent" and backed Ms Mayawati for prime minister.
Mr Yadav realised the fault with his game plan. Instead of focusing on "men with big reputation", he started focusing on "local men with influence". He has been meeting heads of seminaries and local mosques. There has been no high-profile announcement of support for him. But community and religious heads have been carrying out a less visible support campaign for his party.
Maulana Mohammad Qasmi, head of Darul-uloom Al Islamia is one such "man of influence". He runs the largest Islamic seminary in Basti district (adjoining Ayodhya) with nearly 2,000 students.
He said they have been appealing to the voters "to vote for a party which has never joined hands with the firkaparast (communal forces). The voters have to make a choice. The only such person who hasn't been in any alliance with the BJP has been Mulayam Singh Yadav."
But in this game, no one can win all. For example, the Congress, in the absence of any emotive appeal, won the Faizabad seat in 2009. The unhappy-with-the-BJP upper caste united with the Dalits and Muslims for a Congress win. This time, Congress candidate Nirmal Khatri is considered as someone who is strong enough to take on "BJP's Modi". That's why the Imam of Taat Shahi Mosque, Mohammed Jameer is backing the Congress.
"The Muslims need to defeat Modi. And the Congress here (Ayohdya) is best placed to do that. So we want the votes to unite for the Congress," he said.
Interestingly, the BJP doesn't mind this polarization. The party, through Amit Shah's statement, and the SP through Azam Khan's have been stoking communal feelings. Both faced police cases and Election Commission's reprimand. In Lucknow, the BJP used the divide between two sects of Muslims - Shias and Sunnis. With Sunnis committed to voting against Mr Modi, seniormost Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawwad declared that BJP President Rajnath Singh's politics is similar to that of the party's tallest leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The attempts to push voters in UP into two distinct blocks - "with Modi" and "against Modi" - helps the BJP. Caste loyalties take a long time to build. And to break the hold of other parties over decisive castes is tougher while polarization is an instant fix.
Where does this leave the voters in UP? In 2009, the BJP was weak. The upper caste chose between the SP, Congress and BSP. Minority voters were not happy with Mulayan Singh Yadav as Kalyan Singh of Babri demolition fame was his ally. The Muslims voted tactically. As a result, the SP, Congress and BSP won a little over 20 seats each.
In 2014, barring some urban centres, development is not the deciding factor in UP. Caste dominates every other criteria for a vote. The attempt to polarize is perhaps the last nail for realpolitik to make a comeback after a brief appearance in 2009.
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