Apologies to comrade Karl Marx. In Gujarat, religion is the opium of BJP and Congress leaders, not the masses. As electioneering in the state picked up momentum, competitive communal politics has degenerated into ludicrous proportions. The state saw a communally surcharged election in 2002 in the wake of torching of a train in Godhra and the resultant pogrom. The sectarian strife ebbed in the subsequent polls. But 15 years down the line, a more disquieting form of low intensity communalism camouflaged in symbols and couched language is being played out by top leaders of the BJP and Congress. Comical it may look, but it is disturbing.
Suddenly, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has become an overt, practicing, temple hopping Hindu (last count: he visited as many as 22 temples in two months). BJP president Amit Shah has disowned his Jain identity to proclaim that he is a “Hindu” while finance minister Arun Jaitley went public boasting that BJP is a “pro-Hindtuva” (read “communal”) party, though in a nuanced idiom. “The BJP has always been seen as a pro-Hindutva party and if someone wants to mimic us, I do not have any complaint. But there is a basic principle in politics, if an original is available, why would anyone prefer a clone?” he told media. Jaitley’s digs were in response to Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s charge that PM Modi is not a “real Hindu” but “just a follower of Hindutva.”
The communal clatter became shriller soon after BJP claimed that Rahul is not a Hindu as he signed the visitors’ register meant for non-Hindus at the Somnath Temple. The Congress hit back alleging that the photograph of the visitors’ register page circulated by the BJP was “fabricated” and that “Rahul is a Hindu” whereas the BJP president is a Jain.
And to prove Rahul’s bonafide, Congress spokesperson R S Surjewala went a step further claiming that, “Not only is Rahul Gandhiji a Hindu, he is a “janeu dhari” (sacred thread wearing) Hindu.” Even pictures of a teenaged, grieving Rahul performing the last rites of his slain father Rajiv Gandhi as per Hindu rituals (reciting prayers and sprinkling water on the ashes) were sneaked into the social media. Rajya Sabha MP Raj Babbar questioned Amit Shah’s religious identity. “Amit Shah calls himself a Hindu, but he is a Jain. As far as Rahul is concerned, Shiv Bhakti is being practiced in his home since long time. Indira Gandhi used to wear rudraksha, which was only worn by those who worship Shiva.”
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, another rabble-rouser, also discovered that Shah is not a Hindu. “Amit Shah is not a Hindu, but promotes himself as Hindu for political gains… When PM Modi says he is a Hindu, it is fine for all, but when I say I am Muslim, it does not go down well,” he told media slamming both the Congress and the BJP for “playing politics in the name of religion.”
A stung Shah retorted: “Our family has been Hindu for six generations now… Left to myself, I would not have declared this. But, I cannot let Congress insinuation go unanswered and, therefore, declare that my family has been Hindu for six generations,” he told The Times of India. He asked: “Why Rahul visits only Somnath Temple and why he doesn’t visit temples in Delhi?” UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath alleged that Rahul Gandhi “sat in the Kashi Vishwanath temple like he was offering namaz.” It is not clear if Yogi was sitting next to Rahul in the temple or he scanned the CCTV footage to ascertain the body language of the Gandhi scion.
Even a senior journalist (known to be pro-BJP) joined the theatre of the absurd wondering why “the choti is missing from janeu-dhari Rahul’s head?” In a newspaper article last Sunday, he wondered: “…whatever happened to his choti, or the tuft of hair at the back of his head (sported by upper caste Brahmins)? Rahul does not have it. Precisely, that is the problem with the Congress…”
The Catholic church also joined the vitiated, partisan dialogue handing out an opportunity to the BJP to keep the divisive narrative alive. Gandhinagar Archbishop Thomas Macwan issued a “communal” missive asking voters “to pray and save our country from nationalist forces” and elect those “who would remain faithful to our Indian Constitution”. The PM promptly seized the opening. Addressing a rally in the state capital, he critiqued the bishop (without naming him) using words like “fatwa” (to describe the decree) and “patriots” to good effect knowing full well that the Church does not issue fatwas and that lay Christians do not bother about such fiats even if issued. In Kerala, a sizeable chunk of Christians votes for the ungodly CPM. Even more asinine about this din is that Christians account for just 0.52 per cent of Gujarat’s sixty-million population; too miniscule to constitute a “vote bank” and hence unsolicited by the political class. The Election Commission has since show-caused the bishop, as it has taken cognizance of the “communal” appeal of Vadtal Swaminarayan Temple priest asking the Hindus to vote for the BJP.
Hitherto, Gujarat was touted as a model of development by the PM, a claim lapped up uncritically by the media. Modi, who helmed the state for 13 years till 2014 Lok Sabha polls, had successfully marketed the Gujarat model to buttress his claim to be the PM. Three years down the line, the progenitor of Gujarat model appears to have abandoned the reform path falling back on a sectarian narrative. A silver lining, however, is that so far, the communal conversation has failed to strike a chord with the people as is evident from the huge, applauding crowds at the Opposition rallies where the focus is on farmers, unemployment, GST, inflation and Dalit issues. It is too early to say if scheduling the first phase of polling around Babri Masjid demolition anniversary will sway the voters.
The author is an independent journalist.