As 'Shiv Bhakt' Rahul Comes to MP, Congress Campaign is Firmly in 'Hindu' Mode

As the Congress promises gaushalas in every panchayat and a boost to religious tourism in an attempt to out-Hindu the BJP, the saffron camp welcomes the shift away from real issues on which it is vulnerable.

Bhopal: Eleven pandits blew conches and as many girls put tilaks on his forehead soon after Congress president Rahul Gandhi landed at Bhopal airport Monday afternoon to sound the election bugle in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh. As his road-show progressed from the airport, huge banners and posters of “Shiv Bhakt Rahul” greeted the rally along the 11-km  route that passed through the heart of the Madhya Pradesh capital.

The Congress has chalked out temple-visits for the party president for his future election tours in the state where assembly elections are due in November-December.

In poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is offering itself to voters as a more Hinduised alternative of the ruling BJP. Lord Rama, cowsheds, religious tourism and temple-hopping are pet BJP fetishes. Now the Congress is promising the voter that it will do better work than the BJP on these fronts, if voted to power.

Customary references to the welfare of minorities have been conspicuously absent so far in the Congress leaders’ utterances in the run up to the assembly election. The main opposition party’s promised religious tourism hub revolves around major Hindu pilgrim centres in the state but does not include Asia’s largest mosque – the Jama Masjid – situated in Bhopal.

BJP welcomes shift away from real issues

Predictably, the BJP is happy to find the main opposition starting to speak its language. It knows that these atempots at aping the approach of the original Hindutva outfit is only likely to make the Congress look like a ‘Me Too’. Moreover, any electoral contest over Hindutva is bound to shift focus away from real issues such as farmer distress, corruption, the Vyapam scam, unemployment and mis-governance. Nothing will please the ruling party more than this prospect. For the record, though, the BJP maintains that the Congress is forced to resort to Hindutva as it is bereft of substantial issues.

Several opinion polls, particularly those of the CSDS-Lokniti in May and ABP-C-voter in July, have placed the Congress ahead of the ruling party in Madhya Pradesh. Three-term anti-incumbency against the BJP is running deep in the state,  claim the surveys, which were conducted before the Congress decided to enter the treacherous terrain of Hindutva politics.

Are the proposed journey on Lord Rama’s mythical route, the cowsheds being promised for every Panchayat and the temple-hopping of its leaders worth the risk of jeopardising the Congress’s secular credentials?

Congress leaders say that they are doing so to expose the BJP’s unfulfilled promises of constructing the Ram-Van-Path-Gaman project and protecting cows. “The BJP uses religion only for political gains but we are committed to making the state a true religious hub”, says state Congress president Kamal Nath.

‘Religious tourism will promote jobs’

The party’s chief spokesperson in the state, Shobha Oza, believed developing religious tourism will provide a substantial number of jobs for the youth. Her deputy, Bhupendra Gupta is confident that religion and allied work can engage a lot of people.

Next on the anvil from the Congress –a roadmap to restore ancient temples and monuments and develop various sites for religious tourism.

‘Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has completely neglected ancient temples and left them in ruins,” Oza alleges.

With two Jyotirlingas — Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain and Omkareshwar — and the holy rivers of Narmada, Tapti and Kshipra, Madhya Pradesh is ideal for religious tourism, she says.

The Congress has gambled on the Ram Van Path Gaman project that the BJP had abandoned a decade ago, considering it electorally useless. The project envisaged tracing the mythological route that Lord Rama is believed to have taken during his 14-year exile. The Congress is embarking on a 19-day long yatra from September 23 through 35 assembly segments spread across five districts in south-east Madhya Pradesh known as the Vindhya region.

Party leaders and supporters will hop from temple to temple, starting from the Kamta Nath temple in Chitrakoot. They will travel to Maihar in Satna, Ramghat in Jabalpur, Ram Mandir in Bandhavgarh and end in Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada.

Credit: INC/Twitter

Top leaders including PCC chief Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh, Suresh Pachauri and Ajay Singh might participate in the “padyatra”.

Congress leader Harishankar Shukla, the brain behind the proposed yatra, says “We want Lord Rama’s blessings ahead of the elections.” “We are readying an open rath (chariot) in which Hindu saints will sit. Akhand Manas Path and bhajans will be played throughout the duration of yatra,” Shukla said.

Now that the Congress has revived the project, the BJP has joined issue with its main rival. The state government is planning to have a booklet printed on the work it has done so far on the project which chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had announced on October 1, 2007.

Chequered history of a BJP idea

Legend has it that Lord Rama spent 11 out of 14 years of exile in the forests of Madhya Pradesh in Satna, Panna, Shahdol, Jabalpur and Vidisha districts. Starting from Ayodhya to Shringverpur, near Allahabad, Chitrakoot, Sarbhang Ashram, Sutishkna Ashram, Agastya Ashram, Panchvati, Kishkindha, Rameshwaram are among the important places, (now in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively) where Lord Rama is believed to have spent his life during the 14 years of ‘vanvas’, or forest exile. The project was to be led and implemented by former Union minister of state for environment Anil Madhav Dave, who died of a heart attack in May 2017.

When chief minister Chouhan had first announced the project, assembly elections in the state were barely a year away. He was walking on thin political ice. His predecessor, Uma Bharti, who had quit the BJP and formed a separate political outfit, the Jan Shakti party, was haunting the chief minister. The dumper-scam allegedly involving Chouhan and his wife Sadhna Singh was a serious albatross round his neck. The couple were accused of surreptitiously purchasing four loading dumpers worth Rs 2 crore and leasing them out to the Jaypee Cement factory in Rewa. They were given a clean chit by the Lokayukta in the case in 2011.

But back in 2007 Chouhan was desperately in need of some emotive issue to divert attention from the grave political challenges he was facing. That is when the ‘Ram Van Gaman Path’ idea came handy to him.

The idea was floated by the then Satna district BJP president Pushpendra Pratap Singh in 2004. He had discussed it with scholars of the Sri Ram Cultural Research Institute Trust, New Delhi. Singh wrote to Uma Bharti, who chief minister of Madhya Pradesh at the time, and later to the then state panchayat and rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who is now a Union minister.

For three years, the idea gathered dust in government files.  On November 21, 2007, it the files were dusted and the chief minister sanctioned Rs 7.90 crore for the project.

The state government appointed the Rural Engineering Service (RES) as a nodal agency for the project. But there was no clear roadmap for the exile-route.

A few religious organisations and devotees have tried to locate the places where Rama supposedly spent time during the exile but their claims are not backed by credible evidence.

Even as the project remained a non-starter, the BJP won the 2008 assembly poll with a comfortable majority. Its victory was more impressive in the assembly segments which fell on the mythological route of Rama’s exile.

Realising that the party can do well electorally even without the exile route construction, the Shivraj Singh government abandoned the project. In the 2013 assembly eletions, therefore, it was a non-issue.

In July this year, leader of opposition Ajay Singh revived the project. After deliberation within the party, the Congress saw fit to make it an electoral promise.

Congress plays cow politics

The Congress’s other gambit – the promise to build cowsheds in every panchayat – aims to take the wind out of the BJP’s cow sails but is unlikely to impress the electorate in the state.

On September 3, Kamal Nath tweeted, “Pradesh ki har panchayat mein ‘gaushala’ banayenge. Ye ghoshna nahi, vachan hai (We will build a gaushalas in every panchayat. This is a promise, not an announcement).” There are 23,006 panchayats in the state.

The promise not only carries serious financial implications but is also fraught with the political risk of spawning militant gau-rakshaks in every village.

Madhya Pradesh is among the states where the ban on cow slaughter is followed under very stringent laws. As a result, cattle owners are left with no option but to abandon useless cows and bulls on streets, causing serious traffic hazards across the state. In rural Madhya Pradesh, villagers have stopped following the old tradition of handing over sick and old cows to butchers and dalits. They instead just abandon the cattle that they find no longer useful for agriculture.

Credit: Reuters file photo

The twin menace of stray cows and gau rakshaks has not only angered the urban population but also harmed the rural economy. There has been an alarming rise in incidents of stray cows damaging standing crops across the state. Villagers fear beating them, lest an accidental death invite the wrath of  self-styled gau rakshaks.

The crisis is so grave that the Madhya Pradesh Cow Protection Board this year proposed to the state government that district collectors be authorised to book owners who abandon their cows under the Indian Penal Code. The law currently allows only the butcher to be penalised.

More significantly, the Shivraj government has more than halved the budget – from Rs 56 crore to Rs 25 crore – for India’s first cow sanctuary opened in Agar in Malwa district. The sanctuary was inaugurated by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in September last year with much fanfare. For want of fodder and funds, the sanctuary management has stopped accepting more cows. The state government intends to hand over its management to the corporate sector.

Evidently, despite its high-pitched reverence for the sacred Gau Mata , the BJP government has lost its zeal for cow protection, presumably due to the risk involved in dealing with self-styled cow-saviours on one hand and the high cost of maintaining cowsheds, on the other. Yet, nobody, particularly from the saffron side, is heard complaining. Why, then, the Congress has chosen to make it an election promise defies the comprehension of political analysts here.

The idea of a cow shelter in every village evokes a mythological vision of a bygone era when the cow was the pivot of agriculture. In modern agriculture, the cow is considered useful only so long it gives milk. Rural folk in Madhya Pradesh know this better than the Congress thinks they do.

Having tied itself into the Hindutva knot, the Madhya Pradesh Congress leadership is hoping to wean away that chunk of Hindu voters which is not committed to the BJP but is not enamoured of the ideals of secularism either. These uncommitted voters, say Congress leaders, can be won over by defeating the BJP in a competitive display of religiosity.

The most obvious trigger for the competition has come, of course, from Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s newfound penchant for temple-hopping – which began during the Gujarat assembly election last year.

In recent months, Digvijaya Singh is the first notable state Congress leader to wear his devoutness on his sleeves. He kept the promise of silence all through his six-month Narmada perambulation that ended in April this year. But after that, Singh has been quite vocal in telling his BJP detractors that none of them can match him in god-worshipping. He enjoys his supporters telling the world that Diggy Raja’s rigorous Narmada pilgrimage with his wife has silenced the critics who used to dub him anti-Hindu for his diatribes against the RSS.

PCC president Kamal Nath assumed charge in May only after paying obeisance to Lord Mahakal in Ujjain.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, who heads the Congress campaign in the state, seldom misses visiting temples wherever he goes on campaign.

With the electioneering getting more Hinduised, Muslims are feeling a bit cheated.

A section of the Muslim community has not forgotten that the Congress was mum over the controversial police encounter of the eight alleged SIMI operatives on the outskirts of Bhopal on October 31, 2016. Congress leaders had then admitted in private that condemnation of the police action would only accentuate Hindu-Muslim polarisation in the communally surcharged atmosphere which the encounter had generated. This, they averred, would encourage the BJP to get more aggressive.

A senior Muslim leader of the Congress from Bhopal says, ‘“We have no problem in our leaders visiting temples. But they must not forget they represent a party that swears by secularism”.

Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist