"Varanasi Live" Shows How Modi Has Rewritten Politics - by Vir Sanghvi

Anyone looking for proof that the BJP has completely transformed Indian politics need only have watched today's live TV coverage of the Prime Minister's latest Benaras adventures. As chants of "Har Har Mahadev" rang out, he launched the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, took a dip in the Ganga, offered prayers at the Kaal Bhairav temple, and tweeted thanking the River Ganga for "love" and "blessings".

Until Mr. Modi came along, no Indian Prime Minister had ever turned the act of prayer into such a massive satellite TV spectacle for public consumption. And even the BJP, the party of Hindutva, was less exuberant in its efforts to combine religion with politics than it is in the Modi era.

You can argue about Mr. Modi's desire to construct religious spectacles around himself. But what you cannot deny is that it works. The Kashi extravaganza is part of the campaign for the forthcoming UP election and the BJP believes that it will bring in the votes --- as it has before.


PM Modi offering prayers at the Kaal Bhairav temple

One consequence of the success of this strategy is that it has forced other parties to play the same game. Akhilesh Yadav said that the credit for the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor really belonged to him. The project was approved by his government, he said. A little before that, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) publicized a Delhi-Ayodhya Yatra complete with religious imagery (including an illustration of a saint who even looked a little like Narendra Modi).

Just a day before the Prime Minister's Kashi spectacle, Rahul Gandhi told a rally in Rajasthan how great Hinduism is as a religion. And Mamata Banerjee was happy to use Hindu symbolism during her successful election campaign earlier this year.

Mr Modi has changed the rules so comprehensively that these parties, all of whom usually attack the BJP's emphasis on Hindu identity politics, are now talking animatedly about Hinduism themselves. One reason for this is that they are scared of being branded as anti-Hindu. The Congress's internal polling has shown that many voters regard it as being a pro-Muslim party that does not care about Hindus. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has spoken openly about the need to correct the perspective that the Congress is against Hindus. All the Congress's attempts to demonstrate that it has no anti-Hindu bias stem from its conviction that the BJP has poisoned the party's image, successfully portraying its secular politics as a pro-Muslim stance and embedding this misconception in the minds of many voters. In Delhi, AAP won the votes of most Muslims in the last election, but believes that it now needs to appeal to Hindus.


PM Modi offered prayers, took a holy dip in the river Ganga

A second reason is that many Opposition leaders who are observant Hindus themselves resent what they see as an attempt to hijack Hinduism to win votes. They regard religion as a private matter and are angered by the BJP's vote-winning spectacles. In private, they often make the self-evident distinction between political Hinduism and religious Hinduism. Of late, Rahul Gandhi has taken to going public to draw attention to the distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism. He has spoken about it at party fora. And in his speech at the Congress rally in Rajasthan yesterday, he tried to explain the distinction. Gandhi-ji was a Hindu, he suggested, but the man who assassinated him was a Hindutvawadi.

The distinction is a valid one but a strategy of harping on it faces many challenges. First of all, do voters really understand the difference when you try to explain it at a political rally? After Rahul's speech, social media was filled with Congress supporters worrying that 'Hindutvawadi' was too complex a term for a rally audience. Couldn't he just have said 'Sanghis'? A second problem is that if you are going to attack Hindutva, you need to make much of your own devotion to Hinduism for the contrast to stick without your seeming anti-Hindu. In the process, you risk sounding like a Hindu nationalist yourself. But the Opposition genuinely believes that it needs to take back Hinduism from the BJP. It argues that as long as every other party sticks to a religion-neutral campaign, the BJPs Hindu rhetoric will stand out. But if everyone pays tribute to Hinduism and to Hindu traditions, then it will be harder for the BJP to sell itself as the only party that cares about Hindus.


PM Modi having lunch with construction workers of the Kashi-Vishwanath Corridor project

There is some merit in all of these arguments. But there is also a danger. Hindutva is not just about celebrating temples. At the heart of the modern, political version is a strong streak of Muslim-hatred. At the level of the Prime Minister, this may be entirely absent from his speeches, but you have to only listen to Yogi Adityanath and other BJP leaders to know that anti-Muslim dog-whistling (and often a direct attack) is an integral part of the Hindutva project.

There is a limit to how many votes you can ask for in the name of the ancient Vedic tradition. But sadly, there seems to be no limit to the votes you can win once communal temperatures have risen with Muslims painted as dangerous fanatics who work against Hindus and Hindu interests. And that leads us to the central dilemma faced by Opposition parties as they implement this let's-praise-Hinduism strategy: at a time when India's largest religious minority is under threat, do you need to reassure Muslims about their place in a secular nation? Or do you spend your time assuring Hindus that you are on their side?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of Kashi-Vishwanath Dham

Moreover, given that the BJP has usually won more votes when Hindu-Muslim relations are frayed, what do you do when it comes to the crunch, when communal tensions run high? At that stage, all soft Hinduism political rhetoric will fail. You won't win any Hindu votes by talking about Hinduism's tradition of tolerance. So do you then dump this position and come out once again in favour of secularism and the protection of minorities?

As the BJP looks for election victories, it has worked out that it cannot campaign solely on the union government's record. That record is blotchy and not the stuff of electoral landslides. To keep winning, it needs to focus on its core issue of Hindutva defined as an ideology that defends Hindus against Muslims and invaders. The Opposition is in a bind. It can praise Hinduism, but cannot go as far as the BJP. And on the other hand, it cannot easily win elections in a Hindu-majority nation if it is perceived as anti-Hindu.

That's just one way in which Mr Modi has changed the rules. And one way in which the BJP benefits from this transformation of Indian poilitics.

(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)

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