The framing of criminal conspiracy charges against LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and others in the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition case is not surprising. After all, the Supreme Court had ordered so. What is surprising is the determination shown by the normally pliant Central Bureau of Investigation – once dubbed the caged parrot by the apex court – in reopening the case against the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Cynical as it may sound, it was understandable when the CBI pitched for reopening the case in 2011 when the United Progressive Alliance was in power. It is less comprehensible in 2017 when Narendra Modi’s BJP regime controls the investigation agency.

One upshot of this is that Advani and Joshi are out of the presidential race. There was buzz not long ago that Modi might make Advani the country’s president by way of “guru dakshina”. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, though, favoured Joshi to succeed Pranab Mukherjee.

Advani could have emerged as the consensus candidate for president with the opposition agreeing to support him. Mamata Banerjee had indicated as much. Now, charged as he is for bringing down the Babri Masjid – and the Supreme Court questioning how a distinction could be made between the conspirators and the foot soldiers – this will be difficult.

It is clear the BJP will keep the Ayodhya issue on the boil until the Lok Sabha election in 2019. Adityanath, whose mentor Avaidyanath was a top leader of the Ram temple movement, for one will do his best to keep it centre stage. Indeed, a day after charges were framed against the accused BJP leaders, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister visited Ayodhya to offer prayers, taking along some of the chargesheeted people.

That Adityanath called on Advani before the visit suggests the BJP, on the pretext of showing solidarity with the chargesheeted leaders, intends to up the ante on the temple issue.

But the question is: will the Ayodhya issue sway Hindu opinion as it did in the early 1990s now that the Supreme Court has said the case will be heard without adjournments? That it is bound to stay in news for the next two years or so is enough to make it important once again.

Opening old wounds

After Babri Masjid’s demolition, the Ram temple issue receded out of discourse. It did not get the political traction the BJP had hoped it would though several attempts were made to bring it out of the closet. There was a feeling among many Hindus that the BJP had milked the issue for political gain. The party, it was said, was either not really interested in building a temple or was constrained by compulsions of running coalition governments. Either way, the issue lost resonance, or so it seemed. Indeed, Ayodhya did not figure in the BJP’s National Agenda for Governance in 1998 or the 1999 manifesto. On both occasions, Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the party to power at the head of coalitions. The BJP did, however, refer to the temple from time to time to placate its hardline constituency, which was estimated at around 18% of its voters.

The electoral significance of Ayodhya for the BJP had been dismissed using the logic of a “bullet that can be fired only once”. But now the subject is back in news and will continue to be for the next two years or so – and the BJP rules without a coalition. Led by Narendra Modi at the Centre and Adityanath in the state, in public imagination, the party is seen as capable of building the Ram temple. So, will the issue once again acquire political significance?

In the past, several Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders used to complain in private that the temple would have been built long ago had the BJP not politicised the issue. The parishad had started its movement for the Ram temple in 1984, but the BJP formally adopted it as a political agenda in June 1989.

That was the year VP Singh, representing disenchantment with the long ruling Congress, was in ascendance. He came to power later that year with support from the BJP as also the Left and other anti-Congress forces. The alliance was tense though as both Singh and the BJP tried to appropriate the political space vacated by the Congress. Indeed, many scholars believe that the BJP’s formal espousal of the Ram temple, or “Kamandal” as some called it, was a response to “Mandal”, as Singh’s decision in August 1990 to give 27% reservation to Other Backward Classes in government jobs came to be popularly known.

VP Singh’s move may have been motivated by his desire to save his tottering government, but the BJP saw Mandal as an attempt to divide the Hindu society along caste lines, antithesis to its idea of Hindu rashtra. To try and mobilise the Hindus around the emotive issue of Ram temple, the party launched a yatra, led by Advani, from Somnath temple in Gujarat to Ayodhya that culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Mandal and Mandir have both dominated Indian politics for the last 25 years – and continue to do so.

Ayodhya was a political issue in the 1990s and remains so today. In recent days, it has once again been in news, starting with the call by Chief Justice JS Kehar, soon after he took over, for an amicable solution to the intractable Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri masjid dispute, even offering his services to mediate between the communities. Some saw it as a trial balloon to ascertain the reaction to the idea, to see how far the communities were prepared to go. Adityanath has said it more than once in recent days that some Muslim bodies are open to the idea of a Ram temple at the disputed site.

If Modi attempts– and succeeds – in building a Ram temple in Ayodhya through a negotiated settlement, he would become much more than the Hindu Hridaya Samrat cum development icon that he is known as today. He knows that. He also knows that, as of now, keeping the Ayodhya pot boiling would help the BJP in keeping the Hindu consolidation going in readiness for the bigger battle in 2019.