On December 13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the Indian people glued to their screens with the grand inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex and the corridor to River Ganga in Varanasi.
The Kashi Vishwanath project is a civilisational milestone for India, as the temple was finally completed to reveal its finest glory after its destruction by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669.
The BJP already has a USP for the state of Uttar Pradesh, with the saffron clad head priest of the Gorakhnath Math, Yogi Adityanath serving as the chief minister. Kashi is also of great importance to the Hindu community. The project has been completed in a record time of about two years, just in time for the 2022 state assembly election.
The Mandir Frenzy
While pollsters are still wary if religion will play a dividing role in the upcoming election in UP, some experts term activities such as the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath project by PM Modi as “subtle political messaging” in a strategy which can influence voter behaviour. The Yogi government is already banking on its success in Ayodhya, taking the narrative of ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’ to a new height. “You may have forgotten your demand, but I did not forget my work. In a few years from now, by 2023 to be precise, Ayodhya will become India’s most sought-after religious centre. The increasing scale of Ayodhya Deepotsav (from 51,000 lamps in 2017 to 12 lakh lamps today) speaks for our vision,” said the UP CM in his address on Diwali this year. He launched schemes and projects worth Rs 600 crores in Ayodhya, and said, “While the Treta Yuga like Diwali in Ayodhya has been restored, it is undeniable that the temple town is on a Treta Yuga like vikas yatra (journey of development).”
Varanasi has been PM Modi’s home constituency since 2014. The Kashi Vishwanath project has been completed at a cost of Rs 339 crores, and the new complex has reportedly “decongested the constricted shrine”. Congress Seva Dal member Ishaan Ganatra argues that these activities are “a breach of the Constitution of India and its secular fabric”. He says, “It is not the government’s duty to do the job of religious bodies. They can facilitate the responsible bodies and allow them to carry out the work… never before in the history of India has a prime minister taken credit for building temples.”
Ganatra continues, “This is obviously targeted towards a particular vote bank; however, it is not going to affect daily wage earners and people concerned about their day-to-day survival. The funds used to build the temples could have been put to better use.” Asked if it would have an impact in the upcoming election, he replies, “It may be marginally beneficial as compared to this government’s landslide victories earlier. It may have worked in 2014 or 2017, but people have now become smart enough to not fall for it again.”
UP Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya’s tweet regarding the Krishna Janmabhoomi debate has also raised security concerns. On December 1, the BJP leader had tweeted that keeping in line with projects in Ayodhya and Kashi, preparations for a grand Krishna temple in Mathura will be initiated soon. On this, Ballia MP Ravindra Kushwaha also said, “When the Modi government can repeal the farm laws keeping in mind protests by farmers, it can also withdraw the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 to pave way for construction of a grand temple at Krishna Janambhoomi in Mathura.”
Legal And Political Roulette
The Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah discussion has triggered a fresh religious debate, replacing the now resolved Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. Installing an idol of Lord Krishna and building a temple at the site would be against the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which protects the religious character of places of worship as they existed on August 15, 1947. The BJP MP’s claim that the Act could be revoked is problematic. Advocate Krishnanand Mishra says, “They can’t go about revoking a law this sensitive as it would set a very dangerous precedent.” Congress member Ganatra says, “They can but shouldn’t do that because it works both ways. If you break mosques and build temples, it will give people a guide to do the same at their whim, and vice versa.”
It also seems to appear increasingly doubtful if opting this route will benefit the BJP in the imminent polls. The caste issues continue to bug the BJP government. Even if about 79 percent of the population in UP is Hindus, about 60 percent of the total population comprises OBCs and the Dalit community. On December 15, the Modi government decided to postpone discussion on revising the annual income limit for quota eligibility of OBCs. The proposal suggested raising the annual income limit to Rs 12 lakhs from the current benchmark of Rs 8 lakhs. However, the proposal has been shelved, weeks before the UP polls, reportedly pending a detailed study. “Though the poorer sections would definitely benefit from the changes (more people will come within the ambit of reservation with the increase of the limit to Rs 12 lakh), there has been opposition from government employees in the B and C categories, who may get affected by the provisions (by the inclusion of salaries in the calculation of income, many may cross over into the creamy layer and be deprived of quota),” a senior government official source told the Print. Moreover, the Modi government has already ruled out a caste census citing administrative difficulties, drawing criticism.
“The caste privilege and reservation problems that the government had promised would be solved, haven’t. Moreover, 17 Brahmin communities that had previously supported the Yogi administration have announced that they will not pledge allegiance, which will make it extremely difficult for the BJP to retain power,” says Ganatra. He continues, “Adding to this the increase in the number of rape cases and the loss of votes due to the farmers’ protest and the Ashish Mishra incident will further makes it an uphill battle for them.” Ganatra asserts that the Samajwadi Party (SP) stands to gain the most out of the situation, expecting them to win at least 160 seats in 2022, given the latest opinion polls. According to him, the BJP, which garnered an absolute majority after winning 312 seats in 2017, will secure about 130 seats – less than half of the previous total. He estimates a total of 40 seats for the Congress and asserts that in the absence of a clear majority, an SP-INC coalition would always be on the table.
“We have goons leading the country, who ultimately need to remember one thing – mandir banane se paap nai dhulte, aur vote toh bilkul nai milte (neither does building temples wash away your sins, nor does it get you votes),” says Ganatra.
While most recent opinion polls are in the favour of the BJP, the number seems to be dwindling with every new poll. The ABP-CVoter poll data shows the BJP bagging 212-224 seats, down by about 100 seats as compared to 2017. Moreover, according to the opinion poll, the BJP’s losses could seemingly translate into direct gains for the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP.
The BJP has done a lot of development work in Uttar Pradesh. However, the politics of religion is not lost on people. Even though it may be central to India’s politics like caste, it is increasingly becoming an exhausting approach for the voter base, which will soon be mostly youth centric. Furthermore, with the Special Investigation Team’s findings implicating union minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra in the Lakhimpur Kheri case, the party may already be out of its bounds here. Given recent happenings that could potentially overshadow its work, the BJP may benefit with not pushing it too far on the religion front for the rest of its campaign period. At least not in UP.
The Horus Eye is a weekly column written by Divya Bhan analysing current affairs and policies. This column does not intend or aim to promote any ideology and does not reflect the official position of The Sparrow.