The book In Search of Ram Rajya is a political history of Uttar Pradesh that has never been attempted before, certainly not by historians. With a journalism career that spans three decades, Manjula Lal took up the challenge and comes out with an engrossing book which is well researched and laced with riveting anecdotes. In an interview to Arijeet Dutta, Editor-in-Chief of Impactnews.in, the author shares her experiences in writing the book and looks at depth Uttar Pradesh politics. She has her take on what lies ahead for all parties as they battle for supremacy in the country’s most crucial political state.
Impact News: How did the idea of writing the book In search of Ram Rajya come to your mind? And what prompted you to write on it?
Manjula: Last October (2016), it was clear that the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly was very crucial for the future of Indian democracy. Would the BJP be able to keep up the momentum generated by its 2014 win in the General Elections? The publisher of my first book ‘That’s News to Me’ was confident that if we got the timing right, a book on UP politics would have a wide readership. So we set a tight deadline of four months for the writing and editing of the book. Since I am from UP, I was excited about writing the first history of the state. For me, it was like a discovery of my own roots.
Impact News: It is often said that whichever party hopes to come to power in Delhi has to come through Uttar Pradesh, so what makes Uttar Pradesh such a crucial state?
Manjula : UP has given the country nine Prime Minister, if you include Narendra Modi, who chose Varanasi as his constituency. Of course, three of them — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — were from one family, but after independence it seemed as if a lot of talented people like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Vishwanath Pratap Singh naturally rose to the top. Perhaps it is because of their fierce nationalism, as compared with the regional chauvinism of leaders from other states, that gave them such a stature. I have examined this phenomenon in my book.
UP’s importance also stems from the fact that it sends 80 MPs to Parliament, giving it huge weightage. Since coming to power at the Centre in 2014, the ruling NDA was unable to get legislation through the Rajya Sabha since it did not have the numbers. It had to resort to the curious stratagem of categorising bills as money bills to get them passed, as here the Rajya Sabha’s consent is not required. So for BJP it has always been a major state, which is why LK Advani & Co. took up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue in 1980.
Impact News: Tell us about your experiences in writing this book which very well researched and laced with wonderful anecdotes. How did the people with whom you interacted during your field work find your title of the book?
Manjula : The title of the book was actually decided after it was written. We were just lucky that the BJP won, and then Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister, so that ‘Ram Rajya’ seemed to have come to UP. We had only used the term as a metaphor for good governance. Actually, the book went to press in February, when the Assembly elections were still in progress, and the outcome was not known. As for the research, it was easy for me, having been in journalism for three decades and also being from UP. I first read up relevant literature, including the Baburnama, and then spent four days just wondering around Ayodhya on my own. This is where I met local people with their authentic views, like the Muslim rickshaw-puller who said that as kids, they used to graze goats in the Babri Masjid as it was not used for prayers. I discovered that the debate over whether Ram was actually born on this soil was merely academic, as millions of people all over India and South East Asia believe it to be so.
Impact News: The Ram temple construction is very on the BJP agenda. How do you see them going ahead with it now having a government both at the Centre and in the state?
Manjula : Like Demonetisation, or the ban on cattle markets, I expect swift, sudden action in this regard. The movement has mostly been spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Its leaders like Ram Vilas Vedanti, whom I met in the very house where Sangh Parivar leaders met the night before the demolition, are very confident that the BJP government at the Centre will find a way, even if it means passing an ordinance. Already, their workshop has all the material ready, including carved pillars and consecrated bricks. The Yogi government has allowed construction material to be brought in.
Impact News: Your take on the framing of criminal conspiracy charges on L K Advani , Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti in the Babri Masjid demolition case. Has it been done to re-ignite the Ram Temple movement ahead of 2019?
Manjula: Personally I find legal procedures very tedious and incomprehensible. Besides, court cases are not supposed to be politically motivated, so I would not endorse that kind of conspiracy theory. Another such theory says that the case was revived to exclude Advani from the Presidential race. Notwithstanding my aversion to religion in general and religious suits in particular, I have devoted a whole chapter to the Ram Janmabhoomi title suit, giving a blow by blow account of what happened right from 1822 to the present day, when the matter has reached the Supreme Court. I consider such litigation frivolous and a burden on the judiciary. The Allahabad High Court had given a very considered judgement dividing the disputed territory into three parts. The matter could have also found a political solution, as Chandra Shekhar tried to find when he was Prime Minister.
Impact News: Will there be a solution in sight amicably in the near future regarding the Ram Temple in Ayodhya? Recently The SC has accepted BJP leader Subramanian Swamy’s plea for early hearing but not given any dates. Your take on this development?
Manjula: With the current polarisation between the two communities, thanks to aggressive behaviour of gau rakshaks and the ban on illegal slaughterhouses, it does not seem likely that any amicable solution can be found. The hurt pride of Hindus due to centuries of Mughal and British rule is seeking some kind of salve, and the Muslims know that muscular Hindutva will not allow the rebuilding of the mosque. Secular people like me might think both the temple and the mosque should be built, but we are a tiny minority. I have written about how many temples were demolished for ten centuries and how Hindus learnt to build small inconspicuous temples so as not to incur the wrath of the rulers of other faiths. There is a deceptive calm these days. Who knows what is brewing beneath the surface?
Impact News : What does the future hold for Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati in the coming days? Will they be able to bounce back again? What are the problems they will face ahead?
Manjula : As you know, my book has a chapter each on the four political parties of UP: BJP, Samajwadi Party, BSP and Congress. None of the three Opposition parties are in any condition to bounce back. Akhilesh Yadav is hampered by his own family feud, which is now eight months old and shows no signs of abating. Mayawati, after resigning from the Rajya Sabha, is planning to hold rallies all over UP but my gut feeling is that she has lost interest in the state, which is not her home state, as she belongs to Delhi. Her party is in danger of losing its national status, which is hanging by a thread. The BJP is aggressively wooing the Dalits, most of whom want to merge in the mainstream and not be treated as a separate community.
Impact News: Congress party appears to be clueless in the state. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi rallies did attract crowds but did not translate into votes, exit of senior leaders like Rita Bahuguna Joshi to the BJP has further exposed the problems within. How does the party stem this rot? Is the time ripe for veteran leaders to make way for the young?
Manjula : You chose the right word: Clueless. When I went to the party office in Faizabad, just about 10 km from Ayodhya, I encountered an old retainer who keeps writing registered letters to Priyanka, Rahul, Sonia, which of course they never reply to. In contrast, the BJP has a strong outreach on social media, and Sushma Swaraj actually responds to tweets from individuals asking for help. The Congress is still centralised, feudal and demotivated. In end-December, when I did my field work, there was no word about whether the SP and the Congress would form an alliance. As a result, neither party had set up posters or started their campaign. Congress veterans will still have to hold the fort, because youngsters seem to be attracted to the BJP.
Impact News: Given the sorry state of the Congress party, will they be able to stop the BJP juggernaut in 2019? Is it not damaging for the Congress, a party that was once a natural party of governance but is today now having to ride on the shoulders of the smaller regional parties like the RJD in Bihar and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to get back to power?
Manjula : They say a week is a long time in politics, as we saw in neighbouring Bihar. So there is no point in speculating on what will happen two years later. But the Congress slogans of secularism and socialism seem hollow, and will not have any more resonance in this country. They party will have to come up with a whole new ideology, and we know it won’t come from the grassroots. It will be decided in Lutyens Delhi. Congress has already become a junior partner in most states, and if the BJP slogan of a Congress-mukt Bharat captures people’s imagination, this is a distinct possibility. I am a fan of Gandhi, and I wouldn’t mind if his wish that the Congress dissolve itself comes true. It has served its purpose.
Impact News : Finally, how do you see the state going ahead now that BJP has government with brutal majority under Yogi Adityanath. Will this stint see Uttar Pradesh become finally become a Uttam Pradesh? Or it will remain a state with more Prashna (Questions) and no Uttar (Answers).
Manjula : That’s the joke Varun Gandhi made at my book launch: That there seem to be more Prashna, few Uttar. As the MP from Sultanpur, he should know. Jokes apart, those of us who are from UP can only hope that CM Yogi delivers on his promises. Everybody is optimistic because he is not perceived as having come into power to make money, as most politicians do. However, he cannot achieve much without activating the bureaucracy and cleaning up the police, who are often just thugs in uniform. The whole culture of administration has to change. The clear mandate that comes from a two-thirds majority also means a surge in aspirations. It has been only four months. UP certainly deserves better, if not for any other reason than that it has given India so many Prime Ministers!