Why Hindutva Card is Not Working for the BJP in Poll-Bound Madhya Pradesh

Although Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath’s strategy to match the BJP in liberally flaunting religious symbolism was frown upon by a section in the Congress, it has proved effective in blunting the opponent's edge on Hindutva.

Predictably enough, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has brought in the Ram temple in the campaign for the poll-bound Madhya Pradesh.

Union home minister Amit Shah, who toured the state for three days from October 28, mocked the Congress for having doubted the BJP’s intention to build the temple in the past.

In an election rally in Chhindwara, Shah said that date of the consecration of Ram Mandir has been fixed, and asked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi , “Now, what do you have to say?”

The Congress has not responded to the Union home minister’s barb. However, the party has raised objection to the BJP using photographs of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir in its posters and filed a complaint with the Election Commission in this regard.

Ram temple billboards

Billboards and posters of the Ram temple built in Ayodhya have been put up by the BJP across the poll-bound Madhya Pradesh. The posters announce, “Bhavya Ram Mandir bankar ho raha hai taiyyar, fir iss baar BJP Sarkar (A grand Ram temple is being readied, this time again there will be a BJP government).” It may not have been a coincidence that the posters suddenly sprung up in the state during Amit Shah’s three-day tour.

Why is it not resonating with people?  

Contrary to the BJP’s expectation, its desperate attempt to whip up religious fervour among the voters in the poll-bound Madhya Pradesh around the Ram temple has evoked a sense of déjà vu. The issue is not resonating with the electorate. Nor has it charged up the party cadres, most of whom are too confused and dismayed over the infighting over tickets for constituencies to get nostalgic about the three-decade-long Ram Janambhoomi movement that culminated in the construction of the temple.

The design for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

Earlier, the BJP leaders played up the “insult” to Sanatana Dharma by harping over the controversial comment of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Udhayanidhi Stalin, linking it to the Congress’s view by citing the two parties’ association to the INDIA alliance.

At Jan Ashirwad (public blessings) rallies, the BJP played the Hindutva card, focusing its attack on the Congress over the Sanatan Dharma controversy. On September 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the INDIA bloc was trying to destroy Sanatan Dharma. The BJP has also been highlighting its development of religious tourist circuits, such as the Mahakal Lok corridor in Ujjain and the Adi Shankaracharya statue in Omkareshwar. But the electorates don’t appear impressed.

Also read: With a Split House for the BJP in MP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan Is Fighting for Himself

The apparent indifference among voters to the BJP’s attempts to galvanise them around the tried and tested Hindutva pitch is not surprising.

Four factors behind apparent apathy

Political observers attribute the apathy to mainly four factors. One, the secular issues such as unemployment, price-rise and corruption are too overarching ones in this election to be subsumed by communal politics. The Congress is staying focused on these issues, sensing support to the party on them.

Two, the Congress’s promise for caste census has revived the Mandal versus Kamandal narrative, causing Other Backward Castes to priotise caste above religion. Caste has emerged as a more dominant issue in this election. Both the main parties have been pretty sensitive to the narrative and allotted more than 27% seats to the OBCs who account for nearly 50% of the state’s population.

Third, Muslims in Madhya Pradesh are too few and too scattered for majoritarian triumphalism on the Ram temple at their expense.

Fourth – and arguably the most important factor – is the Congress’s astute, if controversial, strategy to neutralise BJP’s Hindutva by deploying the rival’s religious symbolism with equal vigour.

Against this backdrop, the BJP’s strategy to divert people’s attention away from anti-incumbency sentiments against the state government is proving ineffective. But the BJP seems to be left with no option but to push through its core agenda.

All its ploys such as invisibilising chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s performance in the last 18 years, sole focus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements, deployment of seven MPs including three union ministers and centralising the campaign have failed to brighten up the BJP’s prospects.

Earlier opinion polls had forecast Congress victory over the BJP with a slim margin. The latest opinion poll conducted by the Zee-C4 has forecast 132-146 seats to the Congress and 84-98 seats to the BJP.

More remarkably, the opinion poll has predicted 46% vote share to the Congress against 43% to the BJP. This survey was done after the battle lines had been drawn and candidates for both parties had been declared.

Kamal Nath’s neutralising strategy

Although Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath’s strategy to match the BJP in liberally flaunting religious symbolism was frown upon by a section in the Congress, it has proved effective in blunting the opponent’s edge on Hindutva. The Congress’s chief ministerial candidate has tactfully ensured that the BJP oft-repeated claim in the past about the Congress being anti-Hindu sounded incredible, at least in Madhya Pradesh.

Congress leader Kamal Nath. Photo: Facebook/Kamal Nath

Nath has worn his Hinduness on his sleeve. He has often reacted to the charge of practising soft-hindutva by asking, “Kya BJP ne hindutva ka theka le rakha hai? (Can only the BJP practise Hindutva?)”

He proudly declares himself a devotee of Lord Hanuman and has built a 101-foot statue of the deity in Chhindwara. He courted controversy when he hosted Dhirendra Shastri, the 27-year-old head priest of the Bageshwar Dham, at a religious event in Chhindwara, and appeared to be in sync with Shastri’s views on a Hindu Rashtra. The PCC chief also hosted a religious event for another controversial Katha vachak Pandit Pradeep Mishra who too subscribes to and openly favours establishment of Hindu Rashtra.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh: In Quest for Power, Is Congress Ready to Compromise on Secularism?

This is the first time the party is carrying out such an experiment, where it wants to project itself as a better Hindu compared to the BJP. The experiment seems to be working well for the Congress. It is evident in the BJP’s failure to portray the Congress anti-Hindu.

A war of words has erupted between BJP and Congress leaders over the posters of the Ram temple.

Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said, “Congress has complained to the EC that Lord Rama’s temple photos and hoardings are being installed and should be brought down. Sometimes they call Lord Ram imaginary. This country cannot run without Lord Ram.”

In reaction, Congress stalwart Digvijaya Singh said that he is a “good Hindu” and has donated more money than chief minister Chouhan to the Ram temple. But the use of religion in elections is barred.

Earlier, former chief minister Kamal Nath had asked, “Is Ram mandir the temple of BJP? It is the temple of every person of this country. It is a great replica of Sanatan Dharma and I am happy that Ram temple is being constructed.”

Amit Shah’s three Diwali claim

The Ram Mandir took centre stage in Madhya Pradesh after Union home minister Amit Shah said that the state is set to celebrate Diwali festival thrice in the coming months — on the day of Diwali, on the day of the state poll results, and when the temple is inaugurated in Ayodhya in January 2024.

The 230-member Madhya Pradesh assembly is set to go to polls on November 17, with the vote count taking place on December 3