The Hour of The Saints
Election 2009 will be remembered as the first serious attempt by the BJP to create a Hindu vote bank, writes Meera Nanda
The Bharatiya Janata Party has worked hard to create the impression that it is not pursuing an aggressive Hindutva agenda in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It has made good governance, development and security its election plank, and has promised to give us a “majboot neta, nirnayak sarkar”. Old Hindutva favourites like the Ram temple, Ram Setu and the much- beloved ‘cow and its progeny’ do make an appearance in the party’s manifesto, but they are clubbed together under the unobjectionable idea of “preserving our cultural heritage” and tacked at the very end.
But like a leopard that cannot change its spots, the saffron party cannot turn saffron, green and white without losing its very reason for being. The truth is that in this election, the BJP has pursued a Hindu agenda which, in the long run, may prove to be far more radical than the hot-button issues that we are all familiar with. The new agenda can at best be described as the hindukaran of voters, that is, making voters vote as Hindus First.
The work of hindukaran is more subtle than the in-your-face Ram temple agitation of the 1990s. It is taking place through yagnas, kathas and yogashivirs held in temples, ashrams and through public meetings that are often presided over by popular and supposedly apolitical gurus and ‘saints’ whose spiritual discourses could well be lifted out of the writings of the sangh parivar. In many of these meetings, people are urged to take an oath to vote for the party that takes care of ‘Hindu interests’. This is not very different from what happened in the United States of America in 2000 and in 2004 when evangelical preachers used their pulpits to urge their congregations to vote for the party of “traditional values,” whose representative was none other than George W. Bush.
No one can predict just yet if this so-called Hindu vote bank will come through for the BJP. But whatever the outcome, Election 2009 will be remembered as the first time when a serious coordinated attempt was made to create a Hindu vote bank. It is important, therefore, to create a public record of this phenomenon.
A good place to start would be the letter L.K. Advani wrote to a thousand sadhu-sants within days of the release of the BJP’s election manifesto. While the manifesto is lukewarm towards Hindutva, Advani’s letter lays out the red carpet for the saints to come marching straight into the government. His letter promises to establish a permanent institutional mechanism to enable holy men and women “guide politics, governance and other national affairs by the lofty ideals as enshrined in the concept of Ram Rajya”. In addition, Advani reaffirmed the promises made in the manifesto, namely, cleaning the Ganga, protecting the Ram Setu and the cows, promoting spiritual tourism, and giving tax-exemption to dharmic activities. So while the party promised good governance to the yuppie “Friends of the BJP,” it offered faith-based governance to its more traditional constituency.
Who are these raj gurus-in-waiting whom the BJP is so eagerly courting? What role are they being asked to play in electoral politics? This is where the plot begins to thicken.
The sadhu-sants who received Advani’s pledge of allegiance were chosen from a hand-picked list put together by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. While the complete list remains a secret, there is speculation that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Ramdev have received the letter, as did many other members of the Dharma Raksha Manch, a VHP-managed forum, which held its inaugural meeting in January 2009 in Mumbai.
The Dharma Raksha Manch is the culmination of the VHP’s dream of converting the vast majority of religious-minded Hindus into a Hindu vote bank. The idea was first put forward by Swami Chinmayananda in the 1980s. Later, it was taken up enthusiastically by Praveen Togadia, the current general secretary of the VHP.
The creation of a Hindu vote bank required a two-step action plan, which was hammered out in the various dharam sansads held over the last five years or so. The first step was to put forth a Hindu Charter of demands and get a political party to formally accept it. The second step called for organizing grassroot campaigns in which at least 50,000 voters in each Lok Sabha constituency were to take an oath to vote for only that party that accepts the Hindu Charter. The action plan also called for unleashing the power of popular gurus and kathakars, who have a mass following among the moderate middle classes, who may be turned off by communal issues but may still be mobilized to vote for “Hindu interests”.
The sangh parivar has executed this plan to the very last dot in this election. In late January, the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organized the Dharma Raksha Manch in Mumbai which gave the pride of place to a number of popular gurus. In March, the Dharma Raksha Manch came out with an 11-point Hindu Charter. Within days, the BJP announced that it had included all the 11 demands in its manifesto. This was followed by Advani’s fawning letter to the sadhu-sants.
All this set the stage for the Step Two. The VHP’s Ashok Singhal declared that since the BJP is the only party that has accepted the demands of the saints, the saints will henceforth “educate the voters by touring even the remote villages to vote for the BJP”. And that is precisely what the saints have been doing, especially in the communally sensitive areas of Karnataka and Orissa. In mid-March, Mangalore, the home-turf of the Sri Ram Sena, witnessed a huge samajotsva (social festival) organized by the Dharma Raksha Vedike with full support from the state where participants were asked to take an oath to only vote for pro-Hindu candidates/party. As the elections approached and public rallies became difficult to organize, oath-taking moved inside temples: at least 100 yagnas were organized by temples all across the state where the presiding priests administered the oath to vote as Hindus. Yagnas were also the ritual of choice for Ashok Sahu in Orissa, the BJP’s candidate for Kandhamal, the site of anti-Christian riots last year.For their part, the supposedly apolitical gurus have been on the same page as the Dharma Raksha Manch. These gurus with mass appeal have been a major conduit for mainstreaming the Hindutva agenda.
How effective has been this strategy of hindukaran? We will know the answer shortly when the elections results are out.
Meera Nanda’s book, God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu, will be published later this year
This story first appeared on sacw.net