The allegations of irregularities in the purchase of land for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya have now become a full-fledged war of words, with the Opposition cornering the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the temple trust.
Despite clarifications by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader and Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetr general secretary Champat Rai, several questions remained unanswered around the transaction. And this is what's driving the Opposition's offensive.
This piece will try to address the following points:
1. Is a probe being ordered?
2. What aspects need to be probed?
3. How is this likely to play out politically?
Is a Probe Being Ordered?
All the major Opposition parties in UP have demanded a probe into a 18 March land transaction, in which the Ram Temple Trust purchased 1.2 hectares of land for Rs 18.5 crore from two individuals Ravi Mohan Tiwari and Sultan Ansari, just 10 minutes after the duo paid Rs 2 crore to Kusum and Harish Pathak for the same plot of land.
Anil Mishra from the temple trust and Ayodhya Mayor Rishikesh Upadhyay were witnesses to both these transactions.
The Opposition alleges that the temple trust bought the land at an inflated price, thereby duping devotees who had donated for the construction of the temple.
The temple trust on the other hand maintains that the Pathaks had agreed to sell the land way back in 2011.
The temple trust has rejected the demand for a probe and the Uttar Pradesh government is also resisting the Opposition's demand.
What Aspects Need To Be Probed?
The temple trust's claim is that different deeds were signed by the Pathaks for the plot of land at several points since 2011 and it was the result of one of those agreements that Sultan Ansari and Ravi Mohan Tiwari bought it for Rs 2 crore.
The following aspects need to be probed:
1. Was the sale of the land the result of a prior agreement as claimed by the temple, or was the agreement cancelled as claimed by AAP leader Sanjay Singh?
2. If the agreement was indeed from 2011, why would the Pathaks sell the land for Rs 2 crore in 2021 when the market rate is clearly higher?
3. One of the previous agreements on the land did involve Sultan Ansari as well as his father. But Ravi Mohan Tiwari's name is not there in any of the agreements, so can the sale done on 18 March be considered the result of an old agreement?
4. Temple trustee Anil Mishra and Ayodhya Mayor Rishikesh Upadhyay were witness to both the purchases on 18 March, did they verify that the sale by the Pathaks is indeed the result of a previous agreement?
These are some of the questions related to this plot of land. But it is only one part of the large number of transactions happening in Ayodhya due to the construction of the Ram Mandir.
Besides land being acquired for the temple complex itself, the trust is also acquiring land across the district to compensate those who are being displaced due to the temple. This land acquired from Ansari and Tiwari is of similar nature.
There are allegations that the entire process – of selecting such plots of land as well as the price for purchase – are being done in an an extremely opaque manner. This is despite the fact that most of the purchases are being done from money collected from lay devotees.
How is This Likely to Play Out Politically?
Though all the Opposition parties have raised questions on the trust, two have taken a lead over the rest — the Aam Aadmi Party and the Samajwadi Party.
AAP's UP face Sanjay Singh and SP leader Pawan Pandey have been the most aggressive voices questioning the temple trust.
Singh claims that his house was attacked because he was leading the charge on the issue.
The increasing prominence of AAP, however, is a double-edged sword and could splinter an already splintered Opposition in the state.
Besides political parties, Puri Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati has also targeted the RSS and VHP over the issue.
The Opposition has succeeded in creating a great deal of noise around the issue. If the controversy around the temple continues, it would harm a very important card that the BJP has in the UP Assembly elections.
The issue is a very critical one because a number of elements from the Sangh Parivar are involved in the Ram Mandir construction — the VHP is at the core of the exercise and PM's trusted aide Nripendra Mishra heads the construction panel. Then there's the BJP-led state government and local leaders like Rishikesh Upadhyay.
The construction of the Ram Mandir may not be done by the time elections are held, but the BJP may be seeking to gain due to the buzz around the temple.
However, if the only news about the temple coming out is of an alleged scam then this could backfire on the BJP.
As of now, the VHP and BJP are in damage control mode. Besides countering the Opposition's allegations, the VHP and BJP are also trying to push a number of "positive" stories on the temple to overshadow the scam coverage.
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