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Religious fervor's part in India's next election

This time it could be a bigger factor than ever

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • July 4, 2013
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While much of the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand state is under mud deposited by the recent devastating floods, a new wave of “temple politics” has well and truly begun in the country.

The self-styled “Iron man” of India and prime ministerial hopeful, Narendra Modi, was the first to step forward, saying the Gujarat government would repair or rebuild the temple, a revered site among India’s one billion Hindus.

Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna immediately rejected Modi's offer, and also refused offers of help by other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, saying that the Uttarakhand government, although impoverished, was fully capable of restoring the temple to its former glory.

The temple attracts over a million pilgrims and tourists between May and June, before the July monsoons - which came a fortnight earlier this year - make the mountain journey too treacherous.

Bahuguna’s fear that a rival political party will take credit for restoring the temple is well founded. Religion, of which temples of all sorts are the core, has been a major driving force in sub-continental politics well before independence.

The freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi’s presence could not dilute the religious undertones in the body politic, first manifesting in the division of Bengal long before freedom came.

Independence from Britain was itself preceded by the partition of the subcontinent into a truncated Hindu-majority, yet secular, India and a new Muslim Pakistan amidst mass displacement and bloodshed between the two religious groups in which more than a million people may have been killed.

It was not surprising therefore that one of the major cultural acts of independent India’s first government on Nov 12, 1947 was to order the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat, which had been repeatedly razed by Muslim invaders. The last time was by Mahmud Ghazni in the 11th century, but it became a symbol of foreign domination of Indian soil and its ethos.

Sardar Patel, a close associate of Gandhi who consolidated the new Indian state by incorporating more than 500 former principalities – sometimes through military action – led the project.

Somnath has since become the venue for the launch of many a political movement, including the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The sole voice of dissent for Somnath’s reconstruction came from the then prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, who correctly saw it as an attempt at Hindu revivalism.

India is not a theocracy, thanks mostly to men like Nehru, but this “principle” of reversing “historic wrongs” has been a recurring political theme for Hindu groups such as the BJP wanting to make India a Hindu nation.

Once in a while, the Congress Party also finds its leadership susceptible to what can be called temple politics.

The BJP, however, remains the main practitioner of this political art of rousing religious tempers through temples.

Its patriarch, former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani, launched the BJP revival in the late 1980’s by demanding the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya replacing a Muslim mosque that was seen as a hated symbol of Moghul rule, and was allegedly built on the ruins of the birthplace of Lord Rama.

Advani’s demands eventually led to Hindu zealots demolishing the mosque, resulting in a bloodbath in Mumbai and elsewhere. The party has since then kept the political fires burning by focusing on mosques in Varanasi, Mathura and several other Hindu holy places.

The BJP is not the only party pandering to religious sentiments. In the Punjab and the Delhi-Haryana region, the Akali Dal is a Sikhism-centric political party.

Muslims too have their religious political fronts in states such as Assam, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

In Kerala state, Muslim political parties are part of the ruling alliance. The Neo-Buddhists have also formed political parties, especially in Maharashtra, but they do not have the same religious fervor as the others.

Christians do not have a political party as such, but at least one party, again in Kerala, is understood to be reflecting the aspirations of Syrian Christians in the region.

These parties have no real ideology other than exploiting the faith of their respective communities.

Barring a vague belief in capitalist economics and an assertive regional chauvinism, they are still far away from envisioning a socio-political uplift of the people.

They, by definition, have no concern for people other than their own co-religionists. For want of a genuine political, social and economic agenda, they pander to the lowest common denominator, fueling religion as the main source of identity, overcoming classical stratifications of caste and class, in their own pursuit of political power.

Ironically, India’s election code specifically bans the use of religion in elections. This law is routinely broken. Almost no one complains, because almost everyone banks on religion to win an election.

John Dayal is the general-secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council. 

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