In ideal statecraft, good religion and good politics complement each other. However, in New Age politics, God is the mascot of vote-catching, not a fisher of souls. The cynical serendipity of politics leads politicians to publicly discover the divine will only during election time. The vehement vocabulary of the ballot bazaar is now dictated, choreographed and publicised to focus on temples, mosques, churches and any vote bank deity that needs to be propitiated in even far-flung villages and small towns of India.
Why does the slogan of religion invariably replace promises of good governance every election? The answer lies in the insecurity in the minds and souls of eminently popular and credible leaders about the final outcome of the polls. For example, the ruling party very confidently claims that the 54-month old Narendra Modi government has performed extremely well in various sectors. It has provided stable and strong government, relatively peaceful India, massive structural changes in governance, productive use of technology, and the efficient distribution of subsidies to the deserving.
In spite of such achievements, the BJP’s current emphasis is less on showcasing the Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas success story and more on bringing highly emotive issues like Ram Mandir, women’s Sabarimala entry, and changing names of ancient cities to the forefront and high-profile stopovers at places of worship. There is hardly a politician who hasn’t included a holy pit stop on a campaign itinerary. Even Marxist leaders who are supposed to be avowed atheists carry holy urns on their heads during religious ceremonies. Religion is no more the opium of the masses, but for the Marxists. It is the proven weapon to nuke opponents in the name of ‘dharmayudh’.
Last week, BJP’s powerful and highly travelled party chief Amit Shah attended a coordination meeting of RSS and BJP leaders in Lucknow. The construction of Ram Mandir was an important topic of discussion. Shah assured them the Supreme Court would deliver its verdict well in time before the 2019 general elections. Previously, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat had called upon the government to enact a law to facilitate the erection of a temple at Ayodhya. It is evident the party expects to reap a rich political harvest in north India only if it restores Ram janmabhoomi to its pre-Babur glory. Its hardcore supporters pander to this perception. They march to the drum roll of nationalism—Abolition of Article 370, blitzing the terror camps across the border, and reviving forgotten heroes. The rechristening of Allahabad by restoring its Vedic Age name Prayag Raj, and the optics of repainting the railway station signboard with the new name proves they believe God’s will should be used to sway the people’s will.
In south India, where the Congress hold is tenacious and the BJP is trying to grasp the mantle, religiously competitive contortions against the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of menstruating age into Sabarimala Temple have politicised tradition. Both political parties supported the judgment when it was delivered. But they changed their stance in the face of the mass fury of local communities. While the Congress Central leadership adopted a soft posture, local leaders were in the forefront in the agitation. The BJP led from the front by declaring month-long marches against the verdict.
The RSS top echelons ensured full support for the mass mobilisation of cadres. Surprisingly, none of the liberal and secular parties spoke up against the court order. Instead, some of their leaders even warned about its threat to local conventions and beliefs. Perhaps they, too, were keeping 2019 in mind. The BJP perceives Sabarimala as a vote magnet, which could compensate likely losses in the north. Most of Amit Shah’s political peregrinations in his four years as party president were to the south, particularly Kerala.
His ritualistic halt at a religious place each time would be highly publicised in the media—both mass and social—with prominently displayed photos. In the north-east, too, where the BJP has made unexpected inroads into crumbling citadels of the past, Shah has paid his respects to each and every local deity. He has also rarely missed a chance to offer his obeisance at the highly revered Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. The Hindu pantheon apart, Team Shah-Modi is creating a new saffron hagiography by reviving or appropriating forgotten local heroes to garner additional sectional support.
For example, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Azad Hind Sena Government by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was not only aimed at attracting much-wooed Bengali votes, but also at deregistering the Nehru Parivar’s claim on the freedom movement’s inclusive legacy. Modi is the first prime minister since Independence who has visited Red Fort twice in a year to commemorate freedom. In the election-bound states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the BJP has unearthed many local icons who were either social reformers or freedom fighters but never made it to the textbooks and political narratives.
The BJP sees the temple run as a concurrent facet of its nationalist agenda of invoking ideological commitment to score electoral victories. The BJP Election Yatra led by Modi seeks to discover a hidden India. For the Rahul-led Congress, the newfound pietistic bandwagon is on a roll to rediscover New India. Over the past year, Rahul has criss-crossed the nation and has hardly ever dropped a temple or deity from his travel plans. His party has gone out of its way to project him as a committed Hindu whose faith is even more righteous than that of his opponents. This excessive display of Hindu identity has left senior Congress leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad feeling unwanted as election campaigners.
If the intensity and footprint of RaGa’s religious pilgrimages are indications of his intent, it is obvious he realises it pays better to adopt a Bharat that is imbedded in scriptural beliefs, conventions and practices rather than the India of his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru which embodies Indo-Western political sensibilities with a cosmopolitan touch. Full credit goes to Modi for making fake secularism a liability. Going by past record, swearing by Hinduism is more remunerative in the poll pandals than displaying trophies of development and progress.
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