As Election Looms, Politics Infiltrates Kumbh Mela

Uttar Pradesh, under the Bharatiya Janata Party, is spending nearly $600 million (around Rs 4,200 crore) on the event, according to the state government.

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As Election Looms, Politics Infiltrates Kumbh Mela

A devotee in front of a cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during Kumbh Mela. (Reuters)


PRAYAGRAJ: 

At the world's biggest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh, the spiritual message for the faithful is deep and profound.

The political message for voters isn't far behind.

As many as 150 million people are expected to come to Prayagraj during the festival to bathe at the confluence of three rivers considered holy -- the Ganga, the Yamuna, and a mythological third one, the Saraswati. Hindus believe bathing in the Ganga at the time of the Kumbh, this year from January 15 to March 31, absolves people of sins.

Uttar Pradesh, under the BJP, is spending nearly $600 million (around Rs 4,200 crore) on the event, according to the state government.

Some right wing religious and political figures say they expect a return on their efforts, not only from the gods, but from voters when Prime Minister Narendra Modi battles for a second term in an election that is likely to be held by May.

Hindu activists are also using the event to build support for the construction of a temple on the site of the 16th century Babri Mosque which was demolished on December 6, 1992.

Shrikant Sharma, a BJP leader and cabinet minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, denied that the Kumbh Mela is being used to score political points ahead of the elections, and said people wrongly accuse the party of advocating hardline Hindu causes.

"The Kumbh is a matter of faith for us," Mr Sharma told Reuters. "That's why we are working there with complete commitment."

Uttar Pradesh is funding two-thirds of the money to provide an "unforgettable pilgrimage experience". The total cost is more than three times the last Kumbh in 2013.

The BJP nearly swept Uttar Pradesh in the last general election in 2014, but depressed farm prices, high unemployment and the coming together of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have hurt its prospects this year, opinion polls show.

A big loss of seats in the state might prevent PM Modi and the BJP from returning for a second term in New Delhi.

Politics was never far away at two conferences at the Kumbh last week.

Priests and religious leaders sang praises of PM Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for the "best ever" Kumbh.

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They also called for people to back the BJP to help the party in building the temple for Lord Ram at the Babri Mosque site in Ayodhya.

A priest, who has no association with the BJP, said from his base at the Kumbh he would lead a group of followers on February 21 to start building the temple, which could violate a court order and raise religious tensions.

"We must ensure that a nationalist government committed to building a Ram temple stays in power," Mohan Bhagwat, chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP's ideological mentor, said to loud cheers of "Jai Shree Ram!" (Hail Lord Ram).

At another event there, Mr Bhagwat's colleague Indresh Kumar said PM Modi is the "only meritorious" prime ministerial candidate whose party deserved at least two more terms.

Critics among Indian historians and Muslim leaders say the actions of the BJP and other Hindu activist groups are not only a threat to harmony, but put the very nature of India as a secular democracy at stake.

They argue Muslims are increasingly being treated as second-class citizens, pointing to the BJP's plans to give citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan but not to Muslims.

S Irfan Habib, a New Delhi-based historian, said the Kumbh this year was the BJP's "Hindu India" plan to prop up the country's majority religion for political benefit.

India's population is 80 per cent Hindu and 14.2 per cent Muslim.

"This is a blatant violation of the ethos which our constitution represents and ethos which were cultivated by our freedom fighters," said Mr Habib, a specialist in modern history.

Governments should stay away from religion, he said. Mr Habib supported PM Modi administration's decision last year to end state aid to Muslims making the annual Islamic haj pilgrimage.

At the Kumbh, PM Modi and Yogi Adityanath smile down from hoarding after hoarding, trumpeting the work of their government in Uttar Pradesh. Party workers distributed publicity material to many devotees who attended various religious conferences there.

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Much of the effort and spending has no overt political tone.

Uttar Pradesh authorities have set up temporary bridges, hundreds of mass kitchens, more than 120,000 portable toilets, temporary power stations and arranged thousands of free shuttle buses.

Munna, a boatman who has been ferrying devotees for two decades, said his passengers had never been more satisfied at the arrangements than this year, including the provision of free life jackets. He said all of them credited PM Modi and Yogi Adityanath for the cleanliness and facilities.

"They are doing so much for us pilgrims," said Hitu Dambar, a corn and wheat farmer from Madhya Pradesh, holding a BJP booklet he was handed at a government-backed conference attended by more than 100 Hindu, Buddhist and Jain priests under a massive tent.

"Hindus should feel proud of what they are seeing here."

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath started preparing for the Kumbh soon after taking office in 2017 and gave it top priority, officials said.

Last October, he renamed the Kumbh city as Prayagraj, changing it from Allahabad.

He held a cabinet meeting at the festival site late last month, the first such meeting held outside the state capital Lucknow.

Pictures on social media after the cabinet meeting showed him and ministerial colleagues bathing in the holy waters, flanked by Hindu priests in saffron.

PM Modi went to Prayagraj in December to inaugurate various Kumbh-related projects. It's not yet certain if he will visit the Kumbh, said the festival's officer-in-charge Vijay Kiran Anand.

Romila Thapar, 87, one of India's best-known historians, said a "showy" Kumbh like this year's might help invoke Hindu pride.

"I think it does make a difference to those who feel that these rituals uphold the grandeur of Hinduism, and so they take pride in that," Ms Thapar said. "They see that the state is putting in so much money, and they justify it by arguing that 'we are the rightful citizens and the state should put money into our events'."



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