Over the past few weeks, Dhirendra Krishna Shashtri – popularly known as Bageshwar Dham Sarkar – has caught the imagination of many a Hindi news channels. His colourful attires are as eye-catching as his claims to 'guess' the problems of his devotees and his declaration that India should be a 'Hindu Rashtra'.
But it's hard to ignore the 26-year-old self-styled chief priest of Madhya Pradesh's Bageshwar Dham temple, devoted to Lord Hanuman, for yet another reason.
Ahead of the state Assembly elections later this year, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alike are seemingly courting the now familiar face.
Many believe that for Kamal Nath, who has consistently portrayed himself as a devout Hindu, this may be an attempt to not land in an awkward position on the topic of Hindutva. For the BJP, it is business as usual.
With both the parties playing it for Hindutva, we examine the following questions:
Why is Dhirendra Krishna Shashtri in focus?
Why is the BJP reaching out to Shastri, yet remaining cautious?
Will the Congress' political flirtations with Shastri help the party's public perception?
Why Is Dhirendra Krishna Shashtri in Focus?
Dhirendra Krishna Shashtri shot to fame in the last two years – and currently has a large number of followers. His core supporter base resides in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh – but his following has increased across the state, along with Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and some other parts of north India.
Local sources told The Quint that the ruling BJP is backing Shastri to fan the Hindutva rhetoric to create a divide among the OBCs and other communities who have, in recent years, especially after the 2018 Assembly elections, become more organised and politically aggressive.
A senior journalist, who did not want to be named, said that the cohesion among the OBC community and the emergence of leadership among these communities, including JAYS (a tribal outfit of youngsters), Bhim Army, among others, have forced the BJP to fan and ride the Hindutva wave ahead of the state elections.
Shastri, who is popular for his 'miracle' claims and his witty appearance on TV screens, is seen as "a good addition among the messengers of the right-wing whose actions and statements only further the cause of the BJP."
Shastri's forefathers, too, allegedly were in the same trade. But Shastri has been able to capture the religious sentiments far better than them and other present-day 'godmen'.
Recently in the news over accusations of promoting superstition, Shastri's comments have only helped him increase his fan base.
So much so that the base now extends across party lines in Madhya Pradesh.
Shastri Doing the BJP's Bidding, but Party Remains Cautious
The incumbent BJP accepts and supports the rhetoric of Shastri as it goes along with their agenda. However, party sources claimed that they are "focusing on short-term goals, and not a full-fledged endorsement."
Talking to The Quint, BJP's media in-charge Lokendra Parashar said that they have always welcomed people who support the ideology of the party – and that Shastri is advocating what the BJP has always had in their hearts and actions.
"People might think that the BJP and Shastri are co-dependent and hinged because he talks like us. But that is not entirely true. He supports the ideas that we have been working towards for ages. He has a massive following and is vocal for the rights of our religion. We have always stood by like-minded people – and we welcome them."Lokendra Parashar, BJP's media in-charge
A cautious BJP is letting things play out, sources within the party told The Quint, adding that the BJP does not want to propagate the idea that there is any partnership between Shastri and the party, but a mutual respect for the cause of Hindutva.
A party source in the state BJP said:
"Godmen and saints with similar ideology as ours are always a plus for us. But we don't want to get into anything like Asaram Bapu, and so we are careful to not portray any permanent relationship. We respect him as a pillar of Hindu religion and we support his views, but nobody can be trusted 100 percent."
Will Congress' Political Flirtations With Shastri Help the Party's Public Perception?
Kamal Nath's recent meeting with Shastri after the latter voiced his support for a 'Hindu Rashtra' got the state's political sphere buzzing.
Speaking to The Quint, Kamal Nath's media advisor Piyush Babele said that the former chief minister is a "true devotee" – and visits religious places wherever he goes.
"It was a very common visit. Kamal Nath being a true devotee always finds time to visit the religious places wherever he goes."Piyush Babele
When asked about Shastri's controversial statements on 'Hindu Rashtra' and his support for bulldozer action, Babele said:
"Kamal Nath ji went to the Hanuman temple. He met with the temple's pujari Dhirendra Shastri ji and then came out and said that the country will only be run as per the Constitution. Can any other leader do that?"
Madhya Pradesh-based journalist-turned-political observer Deepak Tiwari opined that Kamal Nath's visit was a "calculated risk," adding that it could help the Congress in "countering the perception pushed by the BJP about the Congress being a 'pro-Muslim' party."
"You see, the state is already grappling with the Hindu-Muslim rhetoric despite the population of Muslims being barely 7 percent in the state. The BJP has been successful to an extent to push that the Congress is anti-Hindu. To counter this idea and to ensure that the remaining 93 percent of the voters do not get swayed by it, the Congress' pro-saint activities are a good counter. And who better to do it than Kamal Nath who has always presented himself as one?"
He further added that the Congress knows it better than to ignore or take a stand against such godmen who in one way or the other influence the public perception.
Sources in the Madhya Pradesh Congress told The Quint that Kamal Nath's recent visit to Bageshwar Dham was an attempt to ensure that he or the party is not perceived as anti-Hindu.
"It's very clear that the BJP is juggling with the religious sentiments of the people. They have been promoting the idea that the Congress is a pro-Muslim party which is just not true. We are with everyone, from everyone. We are a party of all religious beliefs. Shastri is the hype now, he is the talk of the towns, cities, and the villages, and we do not want to allow the BJP to use him in any other way."