Playing this card will not be as easy for the BJP in upcoming elections
In early 2022, five states of the Indian Union, namely, Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh (UP), will go to the polls to choose their assemblies. Of the five, UP is most important for it may foreshadow what could happen in the 2024 parliamentary election.
Accounting for 16.5% of India’s population, UP sends as many as 80 members to India’s 543-strong parliament. Of the 14 prime ministers India has had so far, UP has supplied nine. Even the present Gujarati chauvinistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents the state through its Varanasi constituency.
A repeat of 2017?
It is more than likely that in the UP elections, BJP will play its Ram card with full gusto. The question is, will it work the way it worked in the 2017 election.
This doubt arises because of the recently held West Bengal election, where the Modi-Amit Shah duo left no stone unturned in making Jai Shri Ram their party’s war cry -- but to little avail. To measure the value of the Ram card from a larger perspective, it is therefore important to revisit a rather innocuous incident of that election.
In one of her campaign rallies, Trinamool Congress Supremo Mamata Banerjee dramatically indulged in Chandipath (incantations in praise of the Goddess Durga -- and familiar to all Bengalis).
Knowing Mamata Banerjee’s sense of timing and political judgment, this bit of political theatre was anything but impulsive. Her message was a simple yet powerful one: Hinduism does not begin and end with Ram. Other Hindu gods also have strong appeal.
In Bengal, Ram may be respected, but Durga and Kali are far more important. The BJP’s Jai Shri Ram onslaught was countered without even mentioning Ram.
This nuance may become increasingly relevant in Indian politics. The political forces arrayed against the BJP may play their own religion card keeping this distinction in mind.
Consider these examples. In the wake of the parliamentary election of 2019, the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi experimented with the strategy by using Lord Shiva. Since the Ram space was totally occupied by the BJP, Lord Shiva seemed a good alternative. Also called Mahesh, Lord Shiva is a part of the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh trinity.
With vermillion paste on his forehead and dhoti (traditional Indian loincloth) around his waist, Rahul Gandhi tried to present himself as an authentic Aryan. No one seemed to read his political challenge more seriously than the BJP itself. The experience of its forerunner, the Jana Sangh, had taught the party about this hidden danger.
After all, the reason that it could not do well in the 1950s and 1960s was because the Jana Sangh’s Hindu platform was appropriated by the Indian National Congress through its soft-Hindu card. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was averse to such an approach but he was unable to convince party workers at the local levels.
One’s failure is another’s lesson
Drawing from its past lessons, the BJP deployed its formidable troll army to bulldoze Rahul’s stratagem. In no time, the party’s social media cell shredded his stature, calling him a pappu, a derogatory term that connotes an idiotically childish character.
But there were others who took note of Rahul’s ploy. Before long, another anti-BJP leader, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), started brandishing his own Ram card, albeit in a convoluted way.
As Delhi’s Chief Minister, Kejriwal proposed a Shri Ramayana Express, which would transport Hindu pilgrims from Delhi to Ram-related pilgrimage sites, such as Sitamarhi, Janakpur (Nepal), Varanasi, Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram.
So as not to betray his secular credentials, which are also important in Indian politics, he also launched the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra. Under this scheme, senior citizens of all religions could visit the Golden Temple, Wagah Border, Anandpur Sahib, Vaishnodevi, Mathura, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Nilkanth, Pushkar, and Ajmer.
Religion matters in India
In short, no Indian politician can dare to turn his or her back to religion. Each simply adapts to India’s changing circumstances. Kejriwal never fails to project himself as a devotee of Lord Hanuman, Lord Ram’s most prominent lieutenant.
Since the BJP’s deployment of the immensely powerful Ram card, every party is on the lookout for other gods. Now that Kejriwal is expanding his electoral turf, he has inaugurated his mission in Gujarat by seeking the blessings of Lord Krishna in an Ahmedabad temple. He knows that Lord Krishna is the most popular deity in the state.
So, to return to our question, will the BJP’s Ram card work its past magic in the forthcoming UP election? It very well may, but my sense is that it has lost some of its sheen, mainly for three reasons.
One, because an understated Ram is culturally a more enduring force than an overstated one; two, alternative news and social media have emerged as a powerful counter to the pro-BJP godi media (lapdog media); and three, Modi’s personal charisma is waning, which has not gone unnoticed by other contenders for leadership within the party, Yogi Adityanath in particular.
As a result, there will be a scramble for Ram by both Modi and Yogi, which may dilute the efficacy of the Ram card.
Ram is more than a temple
The veneration of Ram in India is too large and diverse to be closeted within a temple in Ayodhya, howsoever gorgeous the temple may eventually become. As Paula Richman (Professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin College in Ohio) has shown in her meticulous research, there is a whole world of the folksy Ram that is not captured by the politics of Ram Mandir.
I recall how after delivering a talk in Guwahati a few years ago, Professor Richman had requested her audience to stay back to share with her whatever they knew of the Ram tradition in Assam’s day-to-day life.
I was amazed to note the abundance of phrases in the Assamese language that contained a reference to the folksy Ram. A moment’s reflection should be enough to convince us that the same is true for other Indian languages. I can certainly speak for the two that I am most familiar with: Bengali and Hindi.
In a recent interview, Professor Richman highlighted that this tradition was not confined to India alone. It is “about how human beings create meaning and order while facing challenges and obstacles in life. Like all classics, the story of Rama and Sita remains meaningful for us today because of its scope, depth, and range of characters ... and episodes .... [S]ince people for whom Ramayana is central now live throughout the globe in countries including India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Surinam, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Canada, parts of Europe, and elsewhere, it has indeed become a global text as well as a global piece of theatre.”
The influence of alternative media
Much as the Indian veneration of Ram is impossible to straitjacket, so is the Indian mediascape. Over the past few years, an alternative media has emerged and is now a powerful source of opinion-making, effectively countering the influence of the so-called godi (lapdog) media.
These alternative media portals routinely show the hollowness of the BJP’s Ram-centric politics. For example, they have doggedly pursued allegations of financial malfeasance in the purchase of land for the Ram temple, successfully undermining the BJP’s best efforts to brush the matter aside.
Now that the Samajwadi Party, AAP, and the Congress, all contenders in UP, have energetically taken up the matter, it is inevitable that the story will grow in importance as the election date draws nearer.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
With regard to Modi’s fading personal charisma coupled with stories of his growing rivalry with the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the rumour mill is running on overdrive. Two conflicting narratives are in circulation these days.
One, Yogi Adityanath has himself leaked the information about the Ram temple land scandal so as to embarrass Narendra Modi and prevent him from taking sole credit for the temple; and two, Modi is bent upon embarrassing Adityanath for the financial mess the temple funds are in.
Modi’s July 15 speech at the inauguration ceremony of the Varanasi International Cooperation and Convention Centre “Rudraksh” was so laudatory of Yogi Adityanath that it sounded like a joke.
Referring to Adityanath’s rule in superlative terms, Modi reserved special praise for how the state handled the Covid pandemic. Given the state’s cataclysmic record on that front, the praise can hardly be taken literally. Given the growing mutual suspicion between them, there is little doubt that Yogi Adityanath too is reading between the lines.
A mischievous commentator had a humorous take on the matter. He recalled a famous dialogue in Dabangg, a 2010 Bollywood blockbuster. In the dialogue, in response to a warm but also mildly threatening advance by the protagonist toward his heartthrob, the latter replies: “Thappad se darr nahi lagta sahab, pyar se lagta hai” (your slap does not scare me, sir, your love does).
In the same vein, Yogi Adityanth may well be saying unto himself: It is safer to keep Narendra Modi at arm’s length than to make him praise me by using my own microphone.
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. E-mail: [email protected]