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New Delhi: The timing of the launch of the incomplete Kashi Vishwanath corridor project could not be more telling.
With the Election Commission of India expected to announce the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls early next month, what would be a better way to emphasise Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu credentials? But more importantly, by putting up an elaborate show, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decisively took on the mantle of leading his party in the upcoming assembly polls, in what is perhaps a last-ditch attempt to rescue his party from a downward spiral under Chief Minister Adityanath’s leadership.
If it had not been clear earlier, Modi on Monday, December 13, positioned himself as the sole decision-making leader of the flock – unambiguously – publicly letting Adityanath know about his restricted centrality in the election campaign that is to follow soon.
Of late, BJP has been fashioning its campaign to once again foreground Modi as the central pillar.
And Modi hit all the right chords.
He kicked off his visit to Varanasi with a dip in the Ganga, offered televised prayers at the temple, went on to acknowledge labourers’ contribution in the temple renovation work by showering flower petals on them and sharing a meal, sprinkled his speech with good doses of Sanskrit shlokas, evoked selective passages from Hindu mythology while excoriating Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s attempt to diminish Kashi’s spiritual significance in the Hindu pantheon.
Remaining true to the Hindutva playbook, the prime minister highlighted the role of Indore’s empress Ahilyabai Holkar and Sikh monarch Ranjit Singh in keeping the temple afloat despite repeated “foreign” atrocities. At the same time, he entirely gave a miss to the contribution of Mughal emperor Akbar in rebuilding the Vishwanath temple after it was demolished twice before.
Modi’s constant attempt to resurrect “Kashi” as the most significant spiritual capital of India, even while missing age-old syncretic traditions of Varanasi’s culture, was a clear effort to energise the Hindu electorate on whom the BJP’s poll prospects rest entirely.
Anticipating losses in the upcoming polls, the saffron party has attempted to deflect attention away from livelihood issues towards the personality cult of Modi over the last one month. Its campaign has been a mix of Hindutva messaging and development-oriented politics with the prime minister at the centre of all of it. If only the last two months are taken into account, Modi has inaugurated the eastern Uttar Pradesh expressway, launched projects worth Rs 9,600 crore in Adityanath’s bastion Gorakhpur, unveiled the Jewar airport and the Saryu Canal project in Balrampur, inaugurated the Kushinagar airport and approved the Ken-Betwa river linking project.
The Uttar Pradesh centrism of the Union government ahead of the assembly polls is all the more clear now that Modi has made the inauguration ceremony of the first phase of Kashi Vishwanath corridor project – worth Rs 339 crores – steeped in his characteristic fanfare. (The total estimated cost of the entire project is Rs 800 crore).
Modi has also positioned himself as the messiah who has repealed the contested farm laws which had become an impediment for the saffron party’s electoral hopes.
Noteworthy in his speech on Monday was his constant reference to the association that Sikhs and their gurus had with the Vishwanath temple. While he did touch upon the literary evocation of “Kashi” in various Indian cultures, it was fleeting in comparison.
The opposition parties, especially Samajwadi Party, have been quick to point out that many of these projects were planned during previous governments. Akhilesh Yadav told the media that the files of at least three of these projects – the Saryu Canal, Gorakhpur Express Highway, and the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor – first moved through official corridors during his chief ministership.
Surveys – both official and unofficial – have pointed out the sagging fortunes of BJP in the upcoming UP polls, while its chief opponent Samajwadi Party has shown signs of an upward swing.
Pushed to second position
Although none of these surveys has predicted a loss for BJP, given its strong social base in the state, they have shown the presence of massive anti-incumbency against the Adityanath government and people’s willingness to vote out BJP. In such a scenario, the BJP has decided to push Adityanath down by passing on the mantle to Modi to save the ship.
It appears that Adityanath – a leader in his own right – has not been able to contain Modi’s resurgence in UP politics either.
Hours ahead of the inaugural ceremony of Kashi Vishwanath shrine, he published an article in a national daily in which he characteristically and inaccurately blamed the Mughal rulers’ “cruelty” for defacing the temple. However, even while he spent a lot of words recalling the “Herculean” efforts of his government to make possible the expansion and beautification project of the shrine – from rehabilitation of people who were displaced to containing “localised” protests to weeding out illegal occupants – he still had to significantly upscale Modi’s role in it in the piece.
“Men who create history are remembered as legendary. Such legendary men are born once in a century. Kashi is witness to such an unprecedented creation of history. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has achieved what could not be accomplished in a thousand years. He has paved the way for the rejuvenation of Indian pride — after a wait of almost 400 years,” he wrote.
In his rather short speech ahead of the Prime Minister’s disquisition at the ceremony, Adityanath reduced himself to a peripheral figure while eulogising Modi’s role in making the corridor happen, clutching at the straws by comparing the corridor with “Indian pride” and shooting at the Mughal rulers with gusto, but with the displayed importance of only an inferior leader.
For Adityanath, whose followers address him as the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (‘ruler of Hindu hearts’), who had amassed substantial support as a hardline Hindutva leader, and who secured chief ministership in 2017 amidst strong opposition from within the party, it appears to be quite a fall, especially at a time when he faces the biggest test of his political career.
With livelihood concerns dominating the electoral discourse, BJP, however, has gone back to its most-saleable figure. By all trends, the UP assembly polls will unfold as a contest between Akhilesh and Modi, with the saffron-robed chief minister only cheering for the supreme leader.