Religion has graduated in India beyond the Marxian definition of being opium. In the politics of a country paradoxically billed as the world's largest democracy, religion has become a powerful tool.
Ideologically, almost all Indian politicians now look committed to the pro-Hindu ideology of accepting India as Hindus' nation. But a very few like Arvind Kejriwal, the current chief minister of Delhi state, stood out. That was until recently.
Kejriwal emerged as a politician in the last decade after his long campaign against corruption. Between 2015 and 2019, he presented himself as the chief apostle of Indian secularism against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hardline pro-Hindutva politics. But in 2020 Kejriwal has been busy walking barefoot to temples and offering prayers.Who in India would have bothered about someone doing that in his personal capacity on a festival day?
Kejriwal has decided to make a public spectacle of his newly found religious devotion to Diwali, India's biggest festival of lights. Political compulsion is the mantra of pragmatism.
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On the auspicious moment of the festive day on Nov. 14 evening, he wants Delhi's 20 million people to virtually join him and his ministers for prayers at the city's opulent Akshardham Temple.
"I, along with my ministers, will start the Lakshmi puja [worshiping goddess Lakshmi] at the time at Akshardham Temple, which will be telecast live by TV channels. I urge all Delhi people to turn on your televisions and sit down with your family to conduct Lakshmi puja," Kejriwal said in an audiovisual appeal.
The change has stunned most of the more than 2 million Muslims in the city. Trader Naushad Ali in East Delhi used his cricket lingo to express the feeling: "It's a case of the fall of another secular wicket. A one time anti-corruption crusader should have avoided such political trappings."
In February 2020 elections to the Delhi state legislature, Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (common man's party) won 62 seats in the 70-member house, defeating Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Kejriwal's poll mandate showed that the new leader and his party could challenge and defeat the seemingly invincible BJP and Modi with secular ideologies and transparent politics.
But within a few months, Kejriwal had decided to appease Hindus. In other words, it shows the tragedy of Indian politicians finding their axis easily in right-wing politics rather than secularism or democratic principles. Democracy has been wrongly interpreted as seeking the majority's will, even if it violates the principles of equanimity and equality.
The bend towards right-wing politics is not new for Indian leaders, at least since 2014, when Modi became the prime minister. These episodes mark a major change in leaders who swear by the spirit of secularism.
In the recent past, Marxist veteran and Kerala state chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan went by popular Hindu sentiment and surprised many by his stance on the Sabarimala Temple row. The temple traditionally banned young women from entering. But Vijayan supported a court ruling against it and offered police help to women who wanted to go to the temple, claiming the effort to be a renaissance in Kerala. However, he fell silent when the opposition made his attempt unpopular.
His party colleague Sitaram Yechury has also performed religious rites. Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, known for her pro-Muslim stance, has started wooing Hindus by reciting Sanskrit mantras worshiping Hindu gods and goddesses during public meetings.
In other words, the majority's Hindu religion continues to play political roles in India, and no one finds it a problem.
Kamal Nath, a former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and secular Congress party leader, organized a recitation of religious discourse in Bhopal on Aug. 5 and sent 11 silver bricks to Ayodhya, considered the birthplace of Hindu Lord Ram, for construction of the grand temple there.
On several occasions, the Congress party has tried to describe its top leader Rahul Gandhi as an ardent worshiper of Hindu lord Shiva.
During the Delhi riots in February, mobs shouted the slogan "Hinduon ka Hindustan" (India belongs to Hindus).
In some places, thousands marched shouting "Shoot down the traitors." The word traitor has somehow become synonymous with Muslims as historically they are seen linked with Muslim invaders. In the current politics, Muslims are generally projected as more loyal to Pakistan, the Muslim-majority nation carved out of British India in 1947 for Muslims, which turned out to be India's arch-rival.
Politically and socially, it is easy to target or neglect Muslims in India just because they are an electoral minority. Some 200 million Muslims, 10 percent of all Muslims in the world, live in India. But they are only some 14 percent of India's 1.3 billion people, more than 80 percent of them Hindus.
Is Kejriwal the last wicket of Indian secularism falling?
If there is polarisation in politics, its reason lies with the people of India. The stream cannot be different than the source. Hence, the correction ought to come from the common masses — their ability to see reason in actions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.