The Rajiv Gandhi government’s overturning of the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case had not only riled the Indian middle class and the intelligentsia but also given a boost to the Hindu right wing and its majoritarian playbook. The Congress appeared to be siding with the Muslim orthodoxy with its own minister, Ziaur Rahman Ansari, had frowning on the Supreme Court judgment while addressing Parliament during the thick of the controversy.
At this tumultuous political juncture, Rajiv Gandhi took his second most injudicious decision: he green-signalled the opening of the Babri Masjid locks. The mosque had been locked by the Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1949 after idols of Ram appeared on the premises under mysterious circumstances on the heels of a campaign that sought to prove that the masjid stood at the exact birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.
In a move most experts believe was made at the prompting of the government at New Delhi to divert attention from the Shah Bano controversy, representatives of the local administration in Ayodhya personally appeared before the District Court in Faizabad and stated that removing the lock from the main gate of the disputed structure would not create any law and order problem. The locks were eventually opened in February 1986.
However, if Rajiv Gandhi had calculated that this balancing act would placate the fundamentalist elements in both the Hindu and Muslim communities, he was terribly mistaken. It was a time when otherwise disparate Hindu religious sentiments had found a rallying point around Ram, thanks to the enormously popular soap opera, Ramayan, running on Doordarshan.
In such a charged-up atmosphere, the unlocking of the mosque relayed the message that the claims of a temple pre-existing there could be legitimate. It generated a political energy that eventually culminated in L.K. Advani’s nation-wide rath yatra, the communal riots it triggered, and the ultimate destruction of the mosque.
With the Rajiv Gandhi government’s subsequent decision to also allow the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to perform shilanyas at the site, the Muslim community defected to the Janata Dal, pioneering the Congress’ humiliating defeat in two major States, undivided Bihar in 1990 and undivided Uttar Pradesh in 1989.
The BJP, on the other hand, was able to hitch the themes of Hindu revivalism and Hindu hegemony into a commanding national narrative that transformed it from a “baniya party” to the nearly sole representative of the Hindu savarnas or upper castes, eroding the Congress’ electoral monopoly of four decades.