Kedarnath shrine. YouTube.
Democracy and religiosity are no longer strange bedfellows in the secular India. The display of religiosity spikes during election time. The contestants either seek the Divine blessing or show that they are not atheists. Poll campaigns require a heavy dose of piety apart from large sums of money. Faith moves the voters to the polling booths. The electoral battle at times is won by polarising the Hindu voters. Leading a campaign to build a Hindu temple can make a party leader from zero to hero. The voters overlook the fact that India is not short of temples but short of schools and hospitals. The voters overlook the fact that India is not short of temples but short of schools and hospitals.
The Opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi finds it necessary not to let the temple visits remain the unique selling point of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So he goes visiting temples in the poll-bound state of Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Gandhi’s temple visits naturally upset the BJP leaders who issue hostile statements. Is visiting a temple still the privilege of the chosen few? Did Rahul Gandhi commit a sin by visiting temples in Gujarat? The BJP leaders who trolled him for doing so seemed to believe so. But in this pre-election season more BJP leaders have visited more Hindu temples.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently visits temples in the glare of TV cameras. He even talks about his getting a Divine Call. This time he greeted the people of Gujarat from a temple in the Himalayas that ranks high in the hierarchy of shrines. Setting aside the secular principles to which India is committed, the Prime Minister promised to reconstruct the Kedarnath shrine with the taxpayers’ money! He went to the extent of revealing that Baba (Lord Shiva) had decided that the responsibility of doing the reconstruction work at Kedarnath Temple should be assigned to no one else but to Baba’s son (Read Modi)!
One of the builders of the ruling BJP was hailed as Hindu Hriday Samrat, Monarch of the Hindu Hearts, before he was ousted by the Crown Prince to whom the title was transferred by his followers. Till now Modi has done nothing to displease the hardline Hindu followers in his extended political family. Thus he retains the title.
The efficacy of the Hindutva card in elections is tested all the time. Identity in politics has come to matter more in India just as in America and Europe. Narendra Modi once declined to wear the distinctive skull cap offered to him at a public function. That cap would have confused the voters about his brand image based on a different religion.
The Hindu temples are in the news for non-electoral reasons also. One more temple in south India recently allowed the untouchables to enter it. Another temple for the first time appointed a non-Brahmin priest.
But Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples in the poll-bound Gujarat hit the headlines because the BJP saw in his visits a conspiracy to diminish its USP. As if it was asking Rahul Gandhi “what right do you have to come to a place that we visit!” Only they must have a direct line to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses who grant electoral boons.
The BJP leaders, who spell secular as “sickular”, scampered to protect their party’s brand image built assiduously over the years through agitations against the Hindu Code Bill and cow slaughter and a violent movement for replacing the Babri Mosque with a temple of Lord Ram.
The brand image matters in politics even more since electioneering now depends heavily on bands, buntings and social media videos. A brand strategy is as critical for a political party as for Apple or Samsung. Had Rahul Gandhi been a company, he would have been sued for stealing the brand!
For a leader, being associated with multiple faiths and cultures used to be a plus point. It has become a liability. It pays political dividends if the leader is seen following the rituals and traditions of the religion of the majority. It does not matter if he is constantly engaged in violating the spirit of that faith. Being associated with multiple faiths and cultures used to be a plus point. It has become a liability.
A party that polarises the Hindu votes makes the religious majority feel besieged and see its faith in danger! It needs a distinct ‘other’ to be pitted against. And the other in the Indian context subscribes to a minority faith. That is why some political opponents of the BJP such as Mulayam Singh and Mamta are addressed in a way that misrepresents them as followers of the faith that they do not belong to. Mulayam is addressed as Maulana Mulayam and Mamta as Mamta Bibi. This way they are branded as “the other”. The comments attacking Rahul Gandhi for visiting temples included a reference to the Muslim way of praying. Insinuations matter in the politics of hate.
Since the Hindu card worked in some recent elections, there is a greater incentive to mix religion with politics in violation of the Constitution. Any step towards positive discrimination is called appeasement of the minorities. Fake religiosity is promoted and used for a political project designed to brand the Congress as anti-Hindu.
This kind of political challenge is not new for Congress. It faced political Hinduism even in the first General Elections when the secular freedom-fighters had an extraordinary mass appeal. Determined to reform the Hindu personal law through the Hindu Code Bill, the Congress handed the first big opportunity to the Jana Sangh the parent body of the BJP, to mobilise forces against secularism.
Nehru was challenged by Swami Prabhudutt Brhmachari who campaigned against the Bill arguing that it went against the age-old values associated with his religion. The newly born political party Bharatiya Jana Sangh went into the poll battle portraying the Congress leaders as anti-Hindu.
Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, the then UP Chief Minister, while campaigning in the elections, felt it necessary to counter this propaganda. In a Lucknow public meeting, Pant listed the achievements of the Congress and Nehru’s contribution. He went on to assure the audience that the interests of the Hindus were well protected. With a flourish, he added: “Aakhir hum bhi to Hindu hain” (after all, we are also Hindus). Suddenly there was a chorus from all corners of the meeting: “Pantji bhi aaj se Hindu hain!” (Pantji is also a Hindu from today!)
Rahul Gandhi will do well to read the account of that campaign written by journalist and freedom fighter Upendra Vajpeyi. “Pantji looked around. There was no police or the Congress volunteers to stop the slogan-mongers who had, in small groups, taken position in all corners. They were all committed volunteers of the newly-born outfit, the forerunner of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
Even then, this party understood well the functioning of the print media. The disturbance of the meeting became the main news in the reports that downplayed what Pant had said about the achievements of the Congress!
In his subsequent election speeches, Pandit Pant skipped all references to Hinduism and still Nehru won with an impressive margin. The challenge by the Hindutva forces was not strong during those days. Today the appeal of Hindu nationalism has increased, thanks to the traditional as well as social media. And there is no Sardar Patel to ban any communal party. The leaders can make the most atrocious statements to inflame sectarian passions.
The Congress poll strategists have to factor in this reality of the new India. In the process, Congress may succeed in protecting the nation from religious extremism but not without compromising its principles intended to promote secularism.
The genie of fanaticism is out of the bottle. The influential Hindu saints and scholars have not spoken against bigotry. They have watched silently the distorted presentation and political misuse of their sacred faith. The genie of fanaticism is out of the bottle. The influential Hindu saints and scholars have not spoken against bigotry.
Today educated young men donning “I Love New York” T-shirts are seen crowding footpath temples on the auspicious days of the week. The public discourse is full of abuses against certain sections. The audio-visual media, laser shows and managed events have magnified the images of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
The distinction between science and mythology and mythology and history keeps eroding. Ironically, the message of scientific temper, modernity and secularism resonated with the people more when the rate of literacy was low.
Nehru could describe the irrigation projects as the temples of modern India and get away with it. A Bengali comedian could make fun of the characters of the Ramayan in his public performances. The feminists could question Lord Ram through their poetry. The people had a better understanding of the traits of the Maryada Purshottam Ram and the principles of Raj Dharma, the noble conduct of the King. Today even a stray comment can hurt one community or the other.
With a view to promote Hindu nationalism, history is being rewritten. The memory of even the recent past has to be obliterated. Some political leaders have included the Taj Mahal in the list of the hate objects. Their prime hate object the Babri Mosque has already been demolished.
Kedarnath shrine, 2015.
India has travelled quite a distance from the days when irrigation projects were called the temples of modern India. Only a few years ago, the most learned and devout Brahmin such as Kamlapati Tripathi, the Congress leader, had a Muslim assistant to clean and rearrange his home temple and its idols before his daily prayers. Dayanand Saraswati had launched a powerful reformist movement that discarded idol worship and popularised the Vedic culture.
Such leaders and not the left liberals will be able to counter the communal forces. Learned preachers and apolitical monks well versed in the faith traditions can expose the political pracharaks (propagandists) exploiting Hinduism. They alone can help restore sanity in the nation and prevent the distortion of Hinduism. The communal forces can be fought more effectively by some one who, like the late philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi, attacks them for “hijacking my religion”.
The BJP has been asking the people to shout with pride: “We are Hindus”, Garva se kaho hum Hindu hain! The slogan sways a large majority. However, on some Hindus it is having the opposite effect. They feel embarrassed by the antics and the bigotry of the self-styled defenders of Hinduism. There is anecdotal evidence of some disenchanted Hindus searching for spiritual solace in other faith traditions or distancing themselves from all religions.
Their numbers are very limited but the damage to the brand image of Hinduism may be huge. The defenders of Hinduism must remember how the image of Buddhism got sullied by the bands of violent monks and Islam stands discredited because of the violence and terror resorted to by the jihadis. A few extremists can malign a political party or a religion. At stake is the brand image of Hinduism as well as that of India. At stake is the brand image of Hinduism as well as that of India.
In India’s politically surcharged atmosphere today one gets to hear strange statements and see strange scenes. A ruling party leader claims that a Shiva Temple lies under the Taj Mahal. A State Governor and the Chief Minister ceremonially welcome Lord Ram alighting from a helicopter that doubles as the Pushpak Viman of the mythological India.
If mythology is inducted into science, if rational thinkers are killed and educational institutions devalued, the people can be made to believe what the dominant political force wants them to believe. If argumentation is prohibited no political choices are left.
A wag says more is yet to come because competitive sectarianism follows a set trajectory. Nationalism gets superseded by ultra-nationalism. Some may demand the renaming of India and the scrapping of the Hindu Code Bill that reformed the Hindu personal laws. Some may want 10 Hindu saints to be nominated to the Upper House of Parliament to give moral guidance to the Government!
Nothing is impossible in the new India!