Next Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The temple, which will be 161 feet tall once complete, is constructed on the grounds of the Babri Masjid, a mosque that stood for nearly 500 years before Hindu extremists destroyed it in 1992—a traumatic moment for Muslims in India and beyond.
Ram Mandir is meant to mark the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, whose statue will be placed inside the temple. Sharad Sharma, a member of the trust charged with the temple’s construction and a spokesperson for the Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad, said recently that Ram Mandir “will be our Vatican City, the holiest site for Hindus across the world.”
The story behind the temple is characteristic of Modi’s politics during nearly a decade as prime minister: It is deeply controversial, it represents the fulfillment of a long-standing promise, and it is a savvy political move—for Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s large Hindu base, that is.
In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the grounds of the destroyed Babri Masjid would be placed in a government-run trust, paving the way for the construction of Ram Mandir. The court also called for a new mosque to be erected in a prominent place. Instead, local Muslim community members were allocated space in an isolated area 15 miles from where Babri Masjid stood. They say they have received little government support for the construction of a new mosque, which has yet to begin.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu monk and close Modi ally. Adityanath has said the temple will be a symbol of “cultural, spiritual, and social unity.” Instead, it will likely deepen tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Critics will point to the temple’s inauguration by Modi as another blow to India’s secular traditions. Like so many of Modi’s policies, the consecration will be a highly divisive affair.
The event also fulfills another of Modi’s signature promises—all tied in some way to Hindu nationalism. The first such pledge he fulfilled was the 2019 revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special autonomous status, giving New Delhi more control over the Muslim-majority region. The second, in 2020, amended a citizenship law to allow refugees who fled to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan for religious persecution to qualify for Indian citizenship—but excluded Muslim refugees.
And now comes the Ram Mandir consecration, which the BJP has pushed for decades. The temple inauguration is explicitly political: It is taking place before construction is complete and well ahead of India’s national elections this spring. The BJP will reportedly praise itself for seeing the project through. Some opposition leaders are boycotting the event, denouncing it as a political gimmick.
However, Modi has cleverly framed Ram Mandir with messaging around social welfare and development. In recent days, he has also inaugurated several infrastructure projects in Ayodhya and linked Rama’s life story to uplifting the poor. This enables him to amplify two of his major campaign themes and perhaps also to present a softer Hindu nationalism to those outside his core base who may be tougher to win over.
Modi is widely expected to win a third straight term in a few months. But with Ram Mandir, he’s sparing no effort to further position himself for electoral success, resorting to the tried-and-true tactics that have long energized his supporters and enraged his critics.
Workers are seen at the construction site of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, India, on Dec. 29, 2023.Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images