India’s Supreme Court on Monday adjourned until the first week in January its hearing on a religious site at Ayodhya in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

One of India’s longest-running and most politically polarizing court cases, the dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups over land title has long been a bone of contention.

The order also deflates hype created in the last few weeks by senior Hindu figures and right wing groups including the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s (BJP) ally Shiv Sena over construction of a new Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which is considered to be the birthplace of Hindu god Lord Ram. A makeshift temple currently stands at the disputed site where Babri Mosque was demolished by a crowd led by BJP leaders in 1992.

In the run-up to national-level elections in 2019, the BJP’s top leadership has stayed clear of the Ayodhya dispute.

The party has reportedly not even considered setting up an ordinance or a bill to pave the way for construction of the temple as demanded by the Hindutva groups, who adhere to Hindu nationalist ideology. While the case has been pending in court since 1949, the BJP has only been associated with the cause since 1989.

Reacting to the supreme court’s order, the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and Vinay Katiyar claimed that “people are running out of patience”. But the official stand expressed by the Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says it all: “The BJP does not link the Ram temple with elections. Many people want an early hearing. That is all I have to say.”

Losing electoral relevance

The BJP seems to be in no mood to bring about legislation to establish a Ram temple as it might damage the party electorally and affect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s well-crafted image of “development man” abroad, say observers.

Any such step will also derail the Sangh Parivar’s (RSS’ affiliate Hindu nationalist organizations) efforts to consolidate the Hindu vote-bank by bringing in the Dalits, also known as scheduled castes, to its fold. Dalits have historically been subjected to social exclusion and untouchability, and temples are emblematic of these practices.

Moreover, the Ram temple is a non-issue for a generation born after 1992, or half of the voting population. Political commentator Ramesh Dixit said, “The youngsters are more concerned about employment than failed religious propaganda. Since even the promises of employment and development stand exposed now, the youths are unlikely to support the BJP in (the) 2019 polls.”

The Congress party accuses the BJP of repeatedly betraying the people. Anshu Awasthi, Uttar Pradesh Congress spokesperson, alleged, “Over the last 25 years, the BJP has exploited the issue to such an extent that even their hardcore supporters would not vote for them on (the) Ayodhya issue.”

However not everyone agrees: “The Ayodhya issue might have lost electoral relevance over the years but it continues to be an emotive issue for Hindus and Muslims both,” insisted a senior BJP leader.

The Temple cause and the BJP’s rise

The BJP’s rise since its inception in 1980 can largely be credited to the Ram Temple cause. The party had won just two out of more than 540 Parliamentary seats in its general election debut in 1984.

The first general election in which the BJP’s manifesto explicitly talked of the Ram Janambhumi issue was in 1989, and by fanning Hindu sentiment, the party managed to win a whopping 85 seats. This was followed by 120 seats in 1991 mid-term polls held after the Rath Yatra (Chariot tour) to Ayodhya culminated in scores of deaths.

“In 1996, (in) the first polls held post-Babri demolition, we got 161 seats, a decent gain but way behind the majority. Despite the massive hype around the temple cause, our tally rose to a mere 182 and 183 in (the) 1998 and 1999 mid-term polls,” says a BJP leader. The BJP-led coalition government lasted just 13 days in 1998 and 13 months in 1999.

Modi government’s silence over the issue

The party understood that during elections, the temple issue can at best ignite communal tensions while not necessarily delivering votes. However, the resultant polarization helps in indirect gains, especially in the northern states in the Hindi heartland. Hence, the temple continues to pop up in electoral speeches. Despite this, Ayodhya has gone from being at the top of the BJP agenda in all elections since 1996, to becoming little more than a footnote in the 2014 manifesto.

The party’s drubbing in the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections forced it to rethink its strategy, with “development” and “employment” planks replacing the emotive temple issue in 2014. The BJP’s revival in 2014 was primarily because of Modi, in whom people saw both development and Hindutva.

The BJP is accused of deviating from its earlier commitment to finding a legal solution if negotiations between Hindus and Muslims failed.

Besides, neither the BJP nor the Sangh Parivar (Sangh family) has carried out any public mobilization campaign to revive the issue. Now even the customary annual celebration of the movement on December 6 attracts very few people, according to locals in Ayodhya.

The leadership that had spearheaded the temple movement is either dead or, like L K Advani, sidelined. The cadres have picked up new slogans like “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (praise Mother India) and “Vande Mataram” (worship the mother) and dropped the catchphrase “Jai Sri Ram” (Praise Lord Ram) from their public discourse. Fresh divisive issues like “love jihad”, in which Muslim men are accused of luring away Hindu women and converting them, and cow slaughter pay more political dividends.

Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath plans to celebrate Diwali at Ayodhya next week amid more fanfare compared to last year, and all at public expense.

Although Indian voters never vote en masse on one issue, the delay in the Ram Janambhumi (Ram’s birthplace) case might help to polarize the people on religious grounds ahead of the State Assembly elections in the three major states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, as well as in the upcoming general elections. It is also likely to play a major role in the winter session of Parliament.