"The flame of the Hindu nation is blazing from Bihar. And the day will come when the entire country will be imbued with the spirit of Lord Rama," said Dhirendra Krishna Shastri on 15 May, as he addressed lakhs of his devotees in Naubatpur village, merely 30 km from Bihar's capital city Patna.
The 26-year-old self-styled chief priest of Madhya Pradesh's Bageshwar Dham temple, Shastri held a five-day "divine court" in the village during his much-hyped visit to Bihar last week. Notorious for his controversial remarks promoting witchcraft and superstition, demanding the Hindu Rashtra, and advocating 'bulldozer action' against certain minorities, he has shot to much fame in the last year.
There are at least two FIRs against him – in Kumbhalgarh police station and in Kelwada police station of Rajasthan's Rajsamand district.
His Hindutva rhetoric aside, Shastri’s fan base has catapulted, thanks to his photo-ops with MP's top politicians, including Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Home Minister Narottam Mishra, and even the Congress’ state president and former chief minister Kamal Nath, earlier this year.
This time, a similar scene played out in Bihar with the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) courting the controversial figure. But the big question is – can Shastri make way for communal politics in Bihar?
Decoding the BJP's Godly Treatment of Shastri
Over the five days of his visit, Shastri was feted by several BJP leaders. Bihar MP Manoj Tiwari was seen chaperoning the seer during his tour.
Prominent faces, including BJP State President Samrat Chaudhary, Union Minister Giriraj Singh, Union Minister of State Ashwini Choubey, Opposition leader Vijay Kumar Sinha, MLA Neeraj Babloo, and former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, were spotted at Shastri's 'Hanuman Katha' in Naubatpur.
With elections slated in MP later this year, the BJP's media in-charge Lokendra Parashar had told The Quint in February 2023 that the party "always stood by like-minded people – and we welcome them" when asked about top BJP leaders sharing the stage with the seer in the state.
Shastri and the party have "a mutual respect for each other because of the cause of Hindutva," he had added.
In Bihar, however, political experts believe the answer lies in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Bihar, among all the states in the country, has witnessed the dominance of caste over religion in elections, particularly in voting patterns, according to a political observer, who did not want to be named.
"While religious issues can generate a certain atmosphere and mobilise the crowds in Bihar, the most influential factor in voting is the caste equation and the alliances formed on the basis of it. The BJP hasn't been able to make in-roads in shifting the focus from caste-based voting to religion-based voting, not to the extent that they prefer," he said.
"So, it is anticipated that the BJP might encounter significant challenges in managing the intricate caste equations of Bihar in the upcoming general elections. But senior BJP leaders are once again trying to cement the religious angle among the masses," he concluded.
Patna-based senior journalist Dharmendra Kumar told The Quint that the BJP has "nothing to show to the people of Bihar."
“There is no list of achievements, so they are strategically projecting a baba through the Hanuman Chalisa, so that the wave of communalism can be generated in the upcoming elections. But it is also certain that this is not possible in Bihar."Dharmendra Kumar
Another senior journalist Ravi Upadhyay, however, disagreed. He said,
“Since both the BJP and Dhirendra Shastri are saying the same thing, it seems there is a viable connection, and its impact will be in the favour of the BJP”.Ravi Upadhyay
He further added that such programmes shouldn’t be associated with any political party, since the situation on the ground narrates the contrary.
Grand Alliance's Snub, Refusal to Entertain Communal Politics
Even as the BJP hailed Shastri, the Grand Alliance – which includes Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal United (JDU) among a total of eight parties – kept a safe distance.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who declined the invitation to attend Shastri's 'Hanuman Katha', launched a counter-attack to Shastri's Hindutva push.
”The Constitution came into being after a long freedom struggle. Were those who are saying this (Hindu rashtra) born during the freedom struggle? Any proposal for renaming or reshaping India is surprising. Is that even possible?” he asked on 17 May, as reported by ANI.
”We ensure that everyone in Bihar has the freedom to worship as they want but no one should interfere in each other’s faith. If someone is saying something on their own, it has no value,” he added.
On its part, the BJP accused Nitish Kumar – and his alliance – of being 'anti-Hindu'.
Earlier this year, the BJP had raked up the issue of Bihar Education Minister Chandra Shekhar claiming that the Ramcharitmanas, an epic Hindu religious book which is based on the Ramayana, “spreads hatred in the society." They also raised questions about Nitish Kumar hosting an iftar party at his official residence at a time when Bihar was “simmering with communal tensions” after Ram Navami clashes.
Last week, Union Minister Giriraj Singh took a jibe at Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav for declining the invitation to attend Shastri's "divine court," saying, "These people go to iftar parties. There are no votes in the 'Hanuman Katha', so they refrain from attending..."
Tejashwi rebutted, saying he goes "where the welfare of the people is prioritised."
Earlier, Tej Pratap Yadav, a leader of the RJD and a minister in the Bihar government, tweeted on 30 April, "Those who sow divisions in the name of religion will face a resounding response."