Changing place names: Fashioning potent weapons of mass distraction

Bharat Bhushan

Unable to construct the Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya, the ruling BJP finds itself in a quandary. Earlier, when it came to power, its excuse for not the Ram temple was that it had to follow the compulsions of “coalition dharma”, but when it gets a majority of its own it would bring in a law to facilitate the construction of the temple.
It has run a government under Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi at the Centre for four and a half years now. What is more, it also has a majority government in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located. Yet it has not been able to build the Ram temple it had promised to the faithful. The reasons for its inability are many. The primary reason being that the land where the temple is to be located is disputed. The adjoining area, which is not disputed, has been acquired by the government on the orders of the Supreme Court, which has also banned any construction there.
So what does the BJP do? It shows the faithful that it is still devoted to Lord Ram and that if it cannot construct a temple at Ayodhya, it can do other things to promote his glory — by renaming Faizabad district as Ayodhya, setting a Guinness World Record by lighting over 300,000 oil lamps in Ayodhya for Diwali and building the tallest statue ever of Lord Ram in Ayodhya on the Sarayu river. This, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has pointed out, will help people in the “darshan” (viewing) and “smaran” (remembering) of Lord Ram.
The strategy seems to be that if the party in power cannot construct the temple at the disputed site, then it can at least convert the entire district of Faizabad, now Ayodhya, into a memorial for Lord Ram.
The party is also happy that some people have objected to the renaming of Faizabad, claiming that it was the first capital of Awadh under Nawab Sadat Ali Khan-I. This allows them to please their followers by asking the rhetorical communal question: “Is their Nawab more important and bigger than our Lord Ram?” This displacement strategy, conscious and well thought out, unlike the Freudian concept, serves several political purposes. It tries to convey the commitment of the BJP to those members of its core constituency who might be getting disillusioned with it because of its inability to build the Ram temple. The renaming of the district and the promise of a Lord Ram statue is a defensive strategy to keep the flock together.
The large-scale renaming of place names in Uttar Pradesh (so far that is the only state on a renaming spree) also suggests that the party, unable to showcase its governance, is keen on proving its Hindutva credentials and to show Yogi Adityanath as a proactive chief minister.
UP is where the main battle of the 2019 general election will be fought, and the BJP must prevent the alliance of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and dalits, represented by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, if it wants to win. The Hindutva-laced campaign is for them too. The renaming and the Ram temple issue appeals to the common religious identity of the OBCs and dalits.
Simultaneously the BJP also addresses the stratification within caste groups by appealing to those who feel that the dominant castes (Yadavs amongst OBCs and Jatavs amongs dalits) have cornered the benefits of reservations. The BJP has tried to attract these smaller castes by its alliance with these groups such as the Kurmis (Apna Dal — Sonelal), the Rajbhars (Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party) or the Nishads (Rashtriya Mahan Gantantra Party). Those sub-castes which do not have a formal political party are given representation by the BJP by fielding them as candidates in various elections. It is important for the BJP to retain the loyalty of these non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav dalits through its renaming and Ram temple moves. Whether this strategy will trump the erosion of their social and economic position by government policies is an entirely different issue. The renaming strategy, however, is also an offensive strategy against the cultural power of the liberal intelligentsia. The more loudly they oppose the BJP’s renaming and statue-building plans in the name of cultural diversity and secularism, the more the BJP stands to benefit.
From the BJP’s point of view, their railing against its renaming spree helps the party project them as pro-minorities. By reducing the secularism of the liberal intelligentsia to nothing more than a pro-minority stand, its members can be projected as biased adjudicators of Indian public life. Indian liberal public intellectuals, therefore, need to think deeply about how to respond to this offensive strategy of the BJP before coming up with knee-jerk reactions.
If the renaming and Ram statue strategy is seen to be paying off even marginally in UP, there is every possibility of it being used to prepare the public mind for nasty communal developments as the general election nears. The large-scale gathering of the Hindu faithful for the Kumbh at Prayagraj, earlier Allahabad, in January may provide just the context for fanning the communal flames. It could provide the perfect context for the assertion of Hindu identity over their caste identity among both the OBCs and the dalits.
This will suit the BJP electorally. If there is one lesson the BJP would have learnt from the recent Karnataka byelections, it is that when the Opposition unites it will be pushed on the defensive. In those states where the BJP vote has been concentrated and where it has done exceptionally well in 2014, such as in UP, the party’s first attempt, therefore, will be to prevent the formation of an Opposition alliance. But failing that, it will attempt to divide the social base and the caste-equations of the Opposition parties. Hindutva and communal polarisation through changing place names, Ram statue politics and a Ram temple agitation are being tested as potential instruments to break the Opposition’s caste and community equations.