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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 39, New Delhi, September 14, 2019

The Perils of Religiosity as a Plank of Electoral Politics in India

Sunday 15 September 2019

by Ganeshdatta Poddar

Contrary to modernity’s belief that with the onward march of science and rationality, and universalisation of liberal values and institutions of liberal democracy, the role of tradition and religion would diminish in public sphere, the forces of unreason and religion have resurfaced all over the world in a big way, albeit in a distorted and ugly form, empty of its spiritual content. Most probably, religion will continue to play an important role in human affairs so long as humanity is confronted with suffering, moral questions and a sense of emptiness.

As mostly semi-literate and literate masses struggling to make both ends meet and also people from the middle classes trying to cling to their self under the onslaught of technology in a rapidly changing world seek solace in faith, unscrupulous politicians find it easy to manipu-late human susceptibility to fear, prejudice and domination as against the saner elements of reason and compassion. Passions are aroused and a frenzy is created in the name of nationalism, patriotism and national security and pride to capture political power by dividing society along caste, community, race and religious lines. This is antithetical to the central message of religion, that is, togetherness and promotion of harmony in society.

Religion has always been present in India’s public sphere. However, what is alarming is the form it is of late taking in contemporary India’s political discourse and with brutishness and the scale on which it is being (mis)used for electoral purposes. And unless we counter it and demonstrate that what is happening now is in stark contrast to the way religion was perceived and practised in India’s public sphere earlier, during the national movement and following independence, and that this jeopar-dises the idea of a Republic embodied in our Constitution, the spectre of uncertainties loom large over the nature of our future society and politics. Let us try to put it into perspective.

Perhaps Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the first nationalist to openly use religion in politics. Tilak and his followers thought that there was nothing wrong in using religion and religious symbols for national awakening. Thus, they tried to transform the hitherto privately-held Ganesh festival into a nationalist event. In the 1920s the national movement got a mass base with Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership. He lived like a Hindu, followed the Bhagawat Gita and used Hindu idioms like Ramarajya to connect with the masses; however, each religion was equally valid for him. In 1929, he wrote in Young India: “By Ramarajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya Divine Raj, the kingdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other God but the one God of truth and righteousness.”

Jawaharlal Nehru abhorred organised religion, but his commitment to secularism was unquestionable. He wrote in his Autobiography that “organised religion” filled him “with horror ... almost always it seemed to stand for a blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation”. Nehru, along with Gandhi, genuinely believed that people from all faiths were integral to the idea of India. In this respect he seemed to have derived his inspiration from what Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj (1909): “If Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, then they are living in dreamland. The Hindus, the Mahommedans, the Parsis and the Christians, who have made India their country, are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity, if only for their own interest. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.”

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad maintained that Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam all enjoin their followers to give up violence and follow Sirat al-Mustaquim—the straight path of love and compassion for all beings created by God. In 1923, as the Congress President Maulana Azad said that he would prefer Hindu-Muslim unity to Swaraj if an angel were to descend from heaven and gave him a choice: “I will relinquish Swaraj rather than give up Hindu-Muslim unity. Delay in attainment of Swaraj will be a loss to India but if our unity is lost it will be a loss to entire humankind.”

This broad and inclusive approach to religion in public life overshadowed attempts at using religion to construct exclusivist narratives as the basis of national political identity during the national movement. The members of the Constituent Assembly came from all parts of India; there were Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Hindus. Some members of the Constituent Assembly wanted the Constitution’s Preamble to begin with the phrase “in the name of God”; however, this proposal got defeated when put to vote. The founding fathers of our Constitution did not privilege any particular religion and arguably gave us one of the best Constitutions in the world.

This approach to religion in public sphere continued in post-independent India under the stewardship of Nehru, though electoral politics did factor in issues of identity. Thus, in 1961, Nehru presented his ideas: “We talk about a secular state in India. It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for ‘secular’. Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the President of India when Nehru was the Prime Minister, eloquently expressed Nehru’s vision in the following words: “When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we as a people reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religions to life or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives. Though faith in the supreme spirit is the basic principle of the Indian tradition, our state will not identify itself with or be controlled by any particular religion.”

With Nehru’s death this commitment to secularism was abandoned in favour of pursuit of vote-bank. Indira Gandhi visited places of worship of different religions. While this can be seen as an attempt to connect with people from different faiths, it also signalled a departure from the way religion was recognised and practised in the public sphere. Deciding an election petition in 1975, Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer lamented: “It is a matter for profound regret that political communalism far from being rooted out is foliating and flourishing, largely because parties and politicians have not the will, professions apart, to give up the chase for power through politicising communal awareness and religious cultural identity. The Ram-Rahim ideal and secular ideology are often politicians’ haberdashery, not soul-stuff. Micro and mini-communal fires are stoked by some leaders whose overpowering love for seats in the legislature is stronger than sincere loyalty to secular electoral process.” (Abdul Hussain Mir vs Shamsul Huda and Anr, 1975) The Congress Government led by Rajiv Gandhi brought in the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce Act), 1986 to overturn Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case. Immediately thereafter, the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya was opened and later shilanyas (foundation laying) was allowed to take place inside the disputed structure in 1989. Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi launched his election campaign from Ayodhya promising Ramarajya across the country. Both the moves by Rajiv Gandhi were aimed at garnering Muslim and Hindu votes by appealing to their religiosity. In response to this electoral strategy of the Congress, the BJP organised a rath yatra in 1990.

THE Congress’s handling of the Shah Bano case and the BJP’s Ayodhya movement brought religion to the centre-stage of electoral politics in India. And ever since this trend of using religion and religious identity for electoral gains has been in the ascendant. In 1991, eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar said: “Never before has the Indian electorate had to face such intense communal and casteist slogans.” (India Today, May 1991) The demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 poisoned and polarised our society along communal lines as never before in independent India.

During the last two to three decades the two major political formations of our country, the BJP and the Congress, seem to be converging on the issue of religiosity in public sphere. Going by the Congress manifesto in the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi’s visits to places of worship of one particular religion during the State Assembly elections in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and the Congress approach to contentious issues like triple talaaq and Sabarimala, one tends to think that the Congress is moving closer to the BJP in terms of its electoral strategy to use religion and religious identity to seek votes. Perhaps it also shows the Congress’s acquiescence in the BJP’s project of majoritarian nationalism. The Congress mani-festo in MP promised to build cow shelters, develop commercial production of cow urine and cow dung, and pass laws to conserve India’s sacred rivers and promote Sanskrit. During his temple visits Rahul Gandhi has identified himself as a devout Hindu. He vacillated to take a stand on Sabarimala and ended up saying that he was not “able to give an open and shut position on this”.

Communal discourse is reaching new pro-portions in the campaign for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Our Prime Minister launched his attack on the Congress by taunting Rahul Gandhi for running away to a constituency “where the majority is in minority”. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has called for a crusade against the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) which he has dubbed as a “green virus”. He has remarked, “humare liye Bajrang Bali paryapt hai (for us, Bajrang Bali is enough)” as against “their Ali”. Statements by Navjot Singh Sidhu, Maneka Gandhi and Milind Deora all contribute to communalisation of our electoral process. And we have all this despite the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and the Supreme Court ruling on use of religion in electioneering ahead of the Assembly elections in 2017. The 1951 Act puts in place civil and criminal sanctions against use of religion in electoral process. On January 2, 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that seeking votes during elections on the basis of religion, caste, race, community or language would amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ and would invite disqualification of the candidate.

This virtual legitimisation of religiosity as the central plank of electoral politics in our country is tearing our social fabric asunder and posing a serious threat to the idea of citizenship embodied in our Constitution. Our political leaders, who are entrusted with the responsibility of shaping discourse on the nature of our future politics and society, don’t have to go elsewhere to learn their lesson on tolerance, co-existence and rightful place of religion in public sphere. More than two thousand years ago Ashoka’s rock edict 12 said: “Do not ever extol the virtues of your own sect ... or denigrate the sect of others. What you must do is to attempt to extol the virtues of the other sect and by doing so you increase the influence of your own sect and you make the other sect learn. By denigrating the other sect, you diminish the influence of your own sect ... What is important is concord ... .”

Ganeshdatta Poddar is an Associate Professor, Flame University, Pune. He teaches Political Science and Spanish at that University. He can be contacted on e-mail at ganeshdatta[at]flame.edu.in

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