In Poll-Bound MP, Politics of Hindutva Has Overshadowed Key Issues of Development

While the BJP is using faith as a means of distracting people’s attention away from its failures, the Congress is trying to shed its anti-Hindu image.

Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh: Both the Congress and BJP have turned Madhya Pradesh into a laboratory of Hindutva. No one is talking about issues such as displacement, Adivasi rights, malnutrition, famine and agriculture/farming.

While on the one hand both prominent parties, the Congress and BJP, are trying to fit their political cards to the Hindutva agenda, on the other hand even sadhus and saints are searching for their gains and losses in the light of the current political climate.

The saint vote

A “Sant Sabha” – saint’s conference – was organised in the state’s capital Bhopal on October 22 where chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan was the chief guest. He shared the stage with many of the region’s prominent saints.

The event was deemed an attempt by Chauhan, the Sangh and the BJP to appease the saint community. One of the objectives was to convey the message that the saint community is with the Chauhan government in the light of the anti-saint atmosphere created after ‘Computer Baba‘, a former minister of state, resigned from his post and turned hostile towards the government.

However, a situation also developed on stage when a saint, seen as dissatisfied with the arrangements at the venue, started berating Chauhan from the stage itself saying that he only remembers the saints every five years and otherwise doesn’t even recognise them. At this point, the organisers had to clarify that the event had been organised not by the BJP or Chauhan, but under the aegis of the ‘Rajbhog Ekta Kalyan Samiti’, where Chauhan was only a guest. This was not a political event, they said, and the saint community had only invited Chauhan to give him their blessings.

Nevertheless, the meaning of the event became crystal clear when every saint on stage began singing paeans to the chief minister, his tenure and his policies. While some credited him for being the leader of the state government that has done most to forward Hindutva in the country and praised his recent Hindutva-leaning initiatives such as the Narmada Seva Yatra, introduction of Bhagavad Gita in schools, the Ekatm Yatra and the setting up of a cow ministry etc, others spoke of a developed Madhya Pradesh.

Also read: The ‘Laboratory of Hindutva’ Began Experimenting During Vajpayee’s Reign

The purpose of the event became even clearer when the saints on stage attacked Computer Baba. Paramanand Giri Maharaj, the president of Hindu Aacharya Mahasabha, declared Computer Baba as being someone who was only interested in personal gains: “Computers are a thing of the past; now is the age of laptops. Computer Baba has no great standing in the saint community “ He added further that “So what if there isn’t one computer, the other 99 are here”. The chief minister, meanwhile, laughed wholeheartedly.     

The chief minister taking over three hours out of his busy election schedule for a “Sant Sabha” illustrates the importance of the Hindutva card in the elections.

The Hindutva card

It’s come to light in the past year or so that only the BJP but the Congress as well has been dreaming of furthering its political fortunes in the state with the help of Hindutva – this can be seen in the methodologies, policies and announcements of both parties.

If we go chronologically, the platform for political Hindutva in the region had begun to be set by Chauhan’s December 2016 Narmada Seva Yatra.

However, Chauhan has taken many religious initiatives prior to this as well, including the Mukhyamantri Teerth Darshan Yojana and his visits to offer prayers at Ujjain’s Mahakaleshwar Temple before every important occasion. Nevertheless, it was after the Narmada Seva Yatra that the tussle over Hindutva between the Congress and BJP began in earnest.

Also read: After MP’s Chouhan Elevated Saints to Minister Rank, Babas Queue up For Assembly Tickets

Chauhan’s Narmada Seva Yatra was completed on May 15, 2017, in response to which the state’s former Congress chief minister Digvijay Singh also embarked on a Narmada Parikrama Padyatra on September 30, which lasted 192 days and finished on April 9, 2018.

Singh declared his yatra as being religious in nature and said it was divorced from politics. However, the Congress milked the yatra to the maximal political benefit. Congress supporters from various platforms were seen comparing Singh’s Narmada Yatra with that of Chauhan’s, where they went on to charge that whereas Chauhan emptied the state coffers for his yatra, splurging thousands of rupees on each aarti, Singh’s had been a disciplined affair. There was no dearth of supporters labelling Singh a “true Sanatani” in the meanwhile.

Digvijay Singh’s Narmada Yatra. Credit: Facebook

Even though Singh kept describing his yatra as being religious till the very end, his Facebook and Twitter timelines were littered with photographs of the crowd of political personalities from the party along with saints who wield political clout in the region. Further, his wife Amrita Rai’s and his timeline during the yatra were also generously sprinkled with stories of complaints from people living in areas close to the Narmada. This indicates that Singh, who had announced his retirement from state politics for ten years in 2003, is in the mood to show political participation once again, and that too using the Hindutva way.

In fact, a few months after its completion, Singh even admitted to his Narmada Yatra being related to political activity.

Meanwhile, when Singh received the support of the saints/priests in his yatra to project his Hindutva image in opposition to Chauhan’s, the latter embarked on ‘Ekatm Yatra’ in December 2017. In the name of the popularisation of the principles of Adi Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, Chauhan toured the state for a month, conducting events. Saints from all over the state were united under his platform and they were given various responsibilities. Slogans hailing Shivraj as a “Mahaan (great) Sanatani” were raised from the stage.

Just as there has presently been an exercise to show the saints in Chauhan’s corner through the “Sant Sabha” after Computer Baba rose in his opposition, similarly, Chauhan had then given an indirect answer to saints expressing their support for Singh by amassing a crowd of saints under his “Ekatm Yatra” platform.

Shivraj Chauhan at Narmada Seva Yatra. Credit: PIB

Similarly, Chauhan had even raised five saints to the rank of state ministers in April in order to consolidate support from saints organising in opposition to him. Narmadanand Maharaj, Hariharanand Maharaj, Computer Baba, Bhaiyyu Maharaj and Pandit Yogendra were first included in the special committees formed for raising awareness about reforestation, water conservation and cleanliness along the Narmada shore shortly before they were made state ministers.

It is worth noting that Computer Baba, along with Yogendra Mahant, had announced a Narmada Ghotala Rath Yatra in order to bring to light corruption in the workings of Narmada Bachao Andolan and openly challenged the government’s claims of having planted six crore trees, in response to which he’d been made state minister.

Also read: Why Locating the Indian Secular State in the Virtues of Hinduism Is Problematic

Even though the Congress had criticised this as politics in the name of religion at the time, today the same Congress is singing a similar tune.

As the elections approach, both the Congress and BJP have reshaped the political battleground into an arena of Hindutva.

Leaders from both the parties are bowing their heads at one temple after another and making pronouncements to entice the Hindu voter. Whenever there is a political tour or state visit from a prominent leader from the Central government from either party, they make sure to begin only after offering prayers at a prominent temple.

Chauhan’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra began at Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain, Chauhan’s Samanvaya Yatra took off from Orchha’s Ram Raja Mandir and Jyotiraditya Scindia’s political campaign began after the offering of prayers at Mahakaleshwar. When Kamal Nath was appointed state president, the first thing he’d done was pay a visit to the Pitambara Peeth Temple in Datia.

Rahul Gandhi’s Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was also milked by the Congress. They went from place to place calling Gandhi “Shiv bhakt” (devotee of Shiva). Meanwhile, even Digvijay Singh professed a desire to visit Kailash Mansarovar.

When Congress state president Kamal Nath announced the construction of cowsheds in 23,000 panchayats upon coming to power recently, Chauhan fired back with the construction of a cow ministry.

Congress leader Kamal Nath. Credit: PTI

While it has still not announced what plans it has to take the state forward, the Congress has already announced the construction of ‘Ram Gaman Path Marg’ in Chitrakoot.  

Congress spokesperson Ravi Saxena stated that construction of cowsheds and Ram Van Gaman Path Marg would also be presented as key points in the Congress’ state manifesto. In conjunction, the party is also organising a “Ram Gaman Path Marg” yatra, where the aim has been set to touch base with the crowd in the 35 legislative assembly seats through which Lord Ram had passed through during his vanavas in the guise of religion.

Throughout the political circuit, both parties have portrayed themselves in supplication of the saints. Where the BJP is elevating them to state ministries, the proximity of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati to the Congress is not exactly hidden. Not only does he keep giving statements regularly against the BJP government, but it is also said of Swaroopanand – touted to be Digvijay Singh’s guru – that he holds such stature within the party that appointments are made at his behest.

No party addressing the ‘real issues’

A look at the past three elections in the state reveals that they were fought on the issues of road, water and electricity, whereas in the polls this time, the politics of religion seems have bested that of development.

Hiralal Alawa, president of the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (Jayas), which speaks for Adivasi rights in the state, says, “Be it the BJP or Congress, no one is talking about the key issues. For example, the West Nimar regions, Adivasi districts and Adivasi blocks, especially Jhabua, Alirajpur, Dhar, Barwani, Khargone and Khandwa districts have the most malnutrition. People are dying of malnutrition and starvation. Migration due to unemployment is also highest in these regions. Many villages don’t have electricity, the health facilities are terrible, there aren’t enough schools. What schools there are, are being shut. Colleges exist, but courses for them don’t, yet neither party is talking about these issues.”

Rahul Gandhi at Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain. Credit: PTI

He further adds: “Both parties should put forward their views on issues like the PESA Act in Adivasi areas, forest rights and the implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian constitution. Farmers of the state are distressed. They are committing suicides. Labourers don’t have enough work to feed themselves. Seventy-eight thousand guest teachers were suddenly removed in the state. No one is talking about teachers on contract. No policies are being proposed in order to provide employment for the young. On the issue of reservations in promotions in government jobs, no one is disclosing if after the formation of the new government they will make a new rulebook to give due benefits of reservations to SC/ST workers. The politics of religion is being played out to distract from the core issues of development of the poor, farmers, Dalits and Adivasis and nothing else”.

Social activist Prashant Dubey also feels that no one is talking about children’s issues such as malnutrition, education, health etc in the heated electoral commotion. 

Senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai believes that neither party has a healthy agenda. The BJP needs to distract the people’s attention away from its failures so they are making use of faith, whereas the Congress is trying to shed its anti-Hindu image.

He says “The BJP is hoping that swayed by faith the people will give them one more chance. The Congress’ problem is now they want to leave no stone unturned. They feel that for the first time they have an opportunity to come to power on their own in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and present themselves as the principal opponents of the BJP. They have a final opportunity to show that the Congress is the only alternative to the BJP so that in the event of an anticipated grand alliance, their leadership would be acceptable to all regional parties. Congress is adopting all these tactics defensively so that the BJP cannot paint them as anti-Hindu. On the other issues, their feeling is that BJP’s failures and anti-incumbency will see them through to power so they don’t have to speak about it.”

Political analyst Lokendra Singh holds similar views. He says, “The Congress’ image became anti-Hindu after former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s comment that the first right to resources of India belongs to the Muslims, and the report reviewing the party’s loss in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 headed by A.K. Antony. The Congress has since been busy changing that image. However, it is not like there is absolutely no talk on the issues of development. The Congress had tried; for example, Digvijay Singh had shared a photo via Twitter that the Bhopal bridge was crashing whilst it was still in construction and Kamal Nath had shared a photo of a street to indicate how bad the streets’ condition was in Bhopal. However, it is another matter that the photo attached in Singh’s case was that of a bridge in Pakistan, whereas Kamal Nath’s tweet had one of a street in Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, political analyst Girija Shankar is of the opinion that the BJP is speaking on developmental issues. Listing the achievements of your government, after all, is still talk of development. He stated “Therefore the BJP is firm on the issue of development, but what the Congress should have done was expose the claims the government is making about its achievements. Instead of doing that they went to the Ram Mandir issue. It seems as if the Congress has fallen for BJP’s trap.”

He adds further, “The BJP is firm on its agenda. The rhetoric of Hindutva for them is common, but what the Congress has started is bringing them ridicule. It appears as though they are intent on copying the BJP because they don’t know what to do. The Congress’s primary image is of secularism. Gandhiji had given the slogan of “Ram Rajya”, but he never spoke of the Ram of the temples; his Ram Rajya meant “Gram swarajya” (village independence). Therefore these tactics are not going to be of any help. Your acceptability is built when you familiarise yourself with the issues of the people, not by imposing your agenda on the public. If they had to talk they should’ve talked of the misgovernance of the BJP’s 15 years of rule.”

Rahul Gandhi in Madhya Pradesh. Credit: PTI

As the common idiom goes, that an excess of anything is harmful, the ire of Computer Baba is some indication of this harm for the BJP. He had resigned from his post as a state minister earlier and accused the Chauhan government of backtracking on its promises on the issues of illegal mining and Narmada conservation, citing this as the reason for his resignation. Thereafter he announced a “Sant Samagam” (saint convention) against the government, which started on October 23 from Indore.

Also read: Why Failure to Form an Alliance With BSP in MP Shouldn’t Worry Congress

It is noteworthy that Computer Baba had hinted at running for the legislative assembly elections in the recent past. Therefore, it is believed that he became miffed when the BJP did not give him due consideration, which led him to resign and begin singing an anti-Chauhan tune.

Congress’s attempts to portray itself as a secular party

Meanwhile, having embraced the Hindutva formula, the Congress also came to its senses when it was resoundingly criticised from all corners and questions were raised about their secular credentials. Consequently, a different persona of Rahul Gandhi could be seen during his recent tour of Gwalior-Chambal. When Gandhi – who until recently exclusively visited temples – reached Gwalior, he began his roadshow after a temple visit but finished it at a mosque. Just before he left Gwalior, he offered prayers at a Gurudwara as well and tried to portray that the Congress is following a secularist line, not just a Hindutva one.

However, prior to this wherever Gandhi visited in the state, he would start his campaign with a visit to a prominent local temple in the area. During these visits, the Congress party workers raised innumerable slogans of “Shiv bhakt Rahul”, “Ram bhakt Rahul”, “Narmada bhakt Rahul” but in Gwalior, the Congress tried not to betray too much of an affinity for Hindutva.

Simultaneously, a phase of constant allegations and counter-allegations regarding the issue of Hindutva is in effect. Small and big BJP leaders from all platforms can be seen saying that the Congress is that party which has denied the existence of Ram in the Supreme Court and now they’re talking of constructing a Ram Van Gaman Path Marg and proclaiming Gandhi a Ram bhakt.

According to BJP state spokesperson Rajneesh Agrawal, “Congress is using Ram for selfish political ends. They have no relations with either Ram or the cow. In Digvijay Singh’s government, they’d gone so far as to snatch pasture land to graze on from the bovines.”

Similarly, Congress leaders from every platform can be seen asking why it irritates the BJP if they speak of Hindutva. Do they have a monopoly on Ram or the religion? Congress spokesperson Ravi Saxena says, “We believe in Ram since the time of Gandhi”. The first to speak of Ram was the Congress’s Mahatma Gandhi. It was us who got the Ram Mandir’s locks opened. Ram’s in tatters right now thanks to the BJP”

Blueprint for future campaigns

Meanwhil,e both parties have designed their blueprint for their future campaigns, where it has been decided that whether it be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP party president Amit Shah or Congress president Rahul Gandhi, they will all begin their campaigns after offering prayers at the regional temple wherever they visit in the state. Further, political experts believe that in a majoritarian voter-heavy Madhya Pradesh, both parties will likely continue to take such steps to impress the Hindu voter until the elections.

What is not being discussed in the interim are issues of development. Whereas the BJP is only listing its achievements and failing to disclose its game plans for the future, the Congress appears to be in a similar predicament. Short of loan waivers, they have also not been able to propose any clear policy on the issues of development or social welfare.

Sand mining, Vyapam scandal, malnutrition, women’s security, farmers’ distress etc are important issues in Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, rehabilitation of people displaced from various sectors due to dam projects is also a grave issue. Not only is unemployment a big issue, but lax healthcare services are also a major point.

Be it the migration of Adivasis or industrial development, leaders from neither the Congress or BJP’s platform are talking about these issues.

Deepak Goswami is an independent journalist.

Translated from the Hindi original by Binit Priyaranjan. You can read the Hindi version here.