Fearing a possible backlash in assembly polls expected to be held in five key states later this year, the Congress has developed a sudden crisis of faith over the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram project, which envisages dredging the coral walkway between India and Sri Lanka to reduce sailing time for ships.
Show of sentiment: A 30 December photo of a protest in New Delhi organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has been demanding that the dredging be stopped and Ram Sethu be declared a national heritage.
Right-wing Hindu organizations have been protesting the project, which they allege would destroy an ancient bridge, believed by them to have been built by Hindu god Ram. The Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance coalition government at the Centre, had been defending the project, citing lack of evidence of any man-made structure at the site.
However, following setbacks in state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, both won by the principal opposition, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the Congress is loath to gift an electoral advantage to the opposition by triggering a possible majority outrage.
Especially as four of the five states going to polls this year are in the north, where the BJP has a strong base. The BJP has a significant presence in the lone southern state in the list, Karnataka, expected to go to the polls in April.
The Congress-led UPA has, therefore, adopted a twin strategy. On the one hand, it has decided to seek more time on 16 January from the Supreme Court, where the project has been challenged, to file a revised affidavit explaining the cultural significance of the so-called Adam’s Bridge or to present an alternative development plan.
The government also needs to make amends for an earlier affidavit, filed in September by the Archaeological Survey of India, which concluded there was no historical proof that Ram ever existed, provoking a public outcry that led to a hasty withdrawal of the affidavit.
Simultaneously, the Congress will reach out to people to tell them that the project was actually initiated by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which also approved the technical alignment that would lead to the alleged demolition of Ram Sethu.
“The government needs more time to study all aspects of the project,” said M. Veerappa Moily, chairman of the Congress party’s media department and a former chief minister of Karnataka. “We don’t want to rush into anything that would hurt the sentiment of the people. In this case, it is just a question of respecting the faith of a section of the society without hindering the development of the country.”
While the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani said it was premature to comment on the government’s stance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has led the anti-Sethusamudram project protest, said stalling the project was not enough.
“We will not stop fighting this project until it is officially called off and the government declares Ram Sethu a national heritage,” said S. Vedantam, a member of the VHP’s national committee.
The VHP will meet in Bangalore on 20 January to discuss further strategy.
Analysts said the Congress could easily find itself in a lose-lose position.
“It is an unfortunate change of stance,” said veteran analyst B.G. Verghese, who is an honorary visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Does this mean the Congress was defending the project without a proper investigation of its implications in the first place? The Left has been blackmailing this government all through. Now, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK), which has rallied behind the project, will do the same. So governance at the Centre will suffer further.”
C. Kuppusami, leader of the DMK in the Lok Sabha, though wasn’t surprised by the proposed shift in the stance of the Congress. “The Congress is afraid that the BJP might benefit from this issue in north India. Here, in Tamil Nadu, and the rest of south India, this is not an electoral issue. We understand the fears of the Congress, but we will continue to support the project and seek its implementation.”
The Tamil Nadu-based DMK’s support to the project underscores the party’s confidence that Ram, perceived as an upper-caste god, does not find quite the same resonance in south India, where anti-Brahmin parties hold sway, as in the north.
Congress leaders, however, concede that the issue can cost the national party dear in north India. Unlike the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, in this case the Congress does not stand to gain non-Hindu votes by displeasing the Hindus, since this is not an issue of protecting minority interests.
Besides the DMK, the Left parties, which don’t depend on upper-caste Hindu votes either, have been supporting the project. Speaking at a rally in Kolkata on the eve of the party’s 22nd state conference on Sunday, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat admonished the BJP for raking up the Ram Sethu issue.
The Congress is, however, not the only party that has changed its stance. The DMK’s rival in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has also done an about-turn.
“It’s true that our party had earlier supported the project,” said V. Maitreyan, a Rajya Sabha member of the AIADMK, which has been a member of the BJP-led NDA earlier and is expected to join ranks once again.
“However, as our leader J. Jayalalithaa has publicly stated, we now believe the project will be economically unviable, ecologically harmful and a disaster in every possible way,” said Maitreyan.
According to the Congress, even the BJP staged a similar shift. Party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi recently released a long list of announcements and decisions taken by the NDA government to push the project. Singhvi pointed out that the NDA government had formulated and endorsed the project, including the technical alignment that it later found so objectionable.
The NDA’s election manifesto of 2004 also promised, “Sethusamudram project will be speedily completed.”
The BJP, on its part, simply maintains that it is not opposed to the project but the destruction of Ram Sethu.
In any case, V. Maitreyan of the AIADMK reasoned, “It is merely of academic importance as to who initiated the project. The aam aadmi (ordinary citizen) does not remember such details. The government that implements such a project will have to bear the brunt, at least in north India where it could become an electoral issue.”
Union shipping minister T.R. Baalu, of the DMK, had claimed, while talking to reporters, more than three months ago that “most of the work on the channel is done”. Moily, however, stressed, “Nothing has been demolished so far. The Congress hasn’t demolished anything. It is only the BJP that tramples on faith and demolishes structures.”
Priyanka P. Narain in Mumbai contributed to this story.