Kashi Corridor: Can Modi’s Religious Avatar Help BJP Win UP?

What does the baring of Modi's Hindu 'Hriday Samrat' card and its excessive use indicate?

6 min read
Kashi Corridor: Can Modi’s Religious Avatar Help BJP Win UP?

For a leader who does not let go of a single opportunity to intertwine his hyper-nationalism with the good old Hindutva narrative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprisingly restricted himself to the latter while addressing the gathering at the inauguration of his flagship Rs 800 crore Kashi Vishwanath Dham project in Varanasi.

On the first day of a politically choreographed two-day visit, publicised by government departments, Modi projected more of a ‘Baba’ (saint) image, than that of a Prime Minister, even as the event is primarily a party/political affair in its orientation (the conclave of Chief Ministers will be attended solely by BJP CMs and their deputies).

Not only did Modi skip the commemorative event in Parliament to pay homage to the security personnel who died in the terrorist attack on 13 December 2001, but he also refrained from mentioning the watershed anniversary of the dastardly attack on the citadel of India’s democracy in his speech.


Law of Diminishing Returns Catching Up?

This is indicative of the realisation that currently, when the regime does not have a ready ‘boast’ to showcase, a la a ‘surgical strike’ or a retaliatory attack as in Balakot, the law of diminishing returns has caught up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as far as encashing this sentiment is concerned.

Right from his prolonged dip in Ganga while performing religious rituals in a luminous hue of saffron (although he had time to wave to the crowd amid these) to the vocabulary he used while delivering an over-45-minute speech, Modi seemed more like the head of a monastic order than the chief executive of a secular nation.

Modi stressed that in ‘New India’ – his conceptualisation post-2014 and which has been incorporated into the BJP doctrine subsequently – viraasat (heritage) and vikas (development) go hand-in-hand.

But while the heritage he dwelled on was exclusivist in nature, the development he showcased has little to do with the daily struggle for survival people are facing.

The Prime Minister asserted that the new temple complex he inaugurated (although this is only partially complete and work is underway in several portions, including on the portion of the corridor where it extends into the city Ganga ghats) “is a symbol of the Sanatan culture of our India, emblem of our spiritual soul and will become an insignia of India's antiquity, traditions and its energy and dynamism”. Not a single word was said about the non-Sanatani tradition of the country.

Drawing on the narrative that has enabled the Sangh Parivar to raise the prevailing levels of prejudice towards Muslims, Modi stated that “if an Aurangzeb stepped on the soil of Kashi in the past, then there was an equal response from [Chhatrapati] Shivaji, if someone like Salar Masud turned in this direction, brave soldiers like Raja Suheldev were equal to their task”.

Into this recurring theme of medieval India being a millennium of ‘slavery’, Modi wove in the ‘story’ of how over the past century, the Kashi Vishwanath temple and its precincts were left to fall into decay under successive governments.

Reference to Mahatma Gandhi

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, whose presence as the executive head of the state became particularly significant in the world of multi-layered politics within the BJP and given the absence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, brazenly invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s name to justify the temple corridor project.

In his short introductory speech before Modi’s address (and according to an article published under Yogi Adityanath’s name in one leading English daily), Yogi said Gandhi wished to “renovate the pagodas and spaces around the temple”. He accused the Opposition of coming to power by misusing Gandhi’s name and memory but not fulfilling his dream of improving access to the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

The fact of the matter is, however, different. If Gandhi, the apostle of peace, had remarked that the “surroundings of Kashi Vishwanath Temple are full of dirt and the noise”, then he also said that it would pain him if he “heard that the Kashi Vishvanath temple or the Juma Masjid was damaged”. He had said, “I would like to defend both the Kashi Vishvanath temple and the Juma Masjid.”

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy in a signed article in another newspaper further refers to what Gandhi had said, that he was “deeply pained” by what he saw at the temple, for its “approach was through a narrow and slippery lane”. But what is ignored is that the blame for this is not placed on revengeful medieval rulers but chiefly on “a Bazar where cunning shopkeepers were selling sweets and toys of the latest fashion”.

Yet, the blame for overcrowding the entrance to the Kashi Vishwanath temple prior to the demolitions that started in 2019 was placed on the doors of the previous government, and a connection was sought with the medieval events in the city.

Three Resolves 'For the Nation'

The reading of Gandhi was impartial. Modi, Adityanath, or Reddy, none of the leaders who referred to Gandhi on this crucial day mentioned that the Mahatma, while not denying the existence of Ram and Krishna, did not worship them.

Gandhi’s spiritual personality was a complex web not given to political harnessing. One has to remember that though his last words were an invocation to Ram, he differentiated between various depictions of Ram and was drawn more to Tulisidas’s Ram, not to Valmiki’s hero.

Significantly, the inauguration day, despite the incompleteness of the project that prevented camerapersons from shooting panoramic wide shots of the corridor through which Modi walked, was termed by Modi as the day of the temple’s birth.

This made it amply clear that claiming that the project was completed and unveiled is crucial to the BJP’s electoral campaign for the upcoming Assembly polls in five states, especially Uttar Pradesh.

The inauguration was rushed before the inauspicious ‘Kharmaas’ period beginning 14 December set in and before the Model Code of Conduct would come into effect (likely in the first week of January). He also mentioned that the inaugural was being done on a Monday, which is considered Lord Shiva’s ‘day’.

The project is going to become part of the polarising facet of the BJP’s electoral strategy. Already, the offensive against the Shahi Idgah in Mathura and the campaign against Friday Namaz has gathered ground.

Adroitly, Modi presented himself as a representative of the people, while terming the citizens of Varanasi (and TV audiences watching throughout India) as representatives of God. Thereafter, he sought from them, “not for me, but for the country” three resolves – Swachhata (cleanliness), Srijan (creation) and for Aatmnirbharta (self-reliance). Each of these somewhat takes out the government from the equation and reduces its role as being a ‘provider’ for the people and give them a sense of being partners in nation-building.

Modi: Religious Leader or Prime Minister?

Quite clearly, the effort is to shift the focus of people from issues that could be troubling them: their economic hardships, rising prices, mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic that lead to the massive migration, and ineptitude while managing the ferocious second wave of the pandemic.

Distracted from the basic necessities, people are being guided by Modi towards taking pride in issues as lofty and high-sounding as optic fibres, sending Indians into space, and how medical colleges are being opened in every district.

These objectives and partial successes are mentioned in the same breath as the continuing construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the successful beautification of the Somnath temple, and the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor.

In an indication of his future agenda, Modi referred to the seven cities considered sacred by Hindus – Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya, Kashi, Kanchi and Avantika – as being the primary spiritual chain of the country. In any other country, this could well have been an extract from the speech of a godman, or a religious leader, but it was made by the Prime Minister with constitutional obligations to people of all faiths.

The moot question is, while Modi has always been the Hindu Hriday Samrat, he camouflaged it in previous polls to a great extent. So, what does the baring of this card and its excessive use indicate?

While not hazarding a guess at the likely outcome of the upcoming polls, the current thrust undeniably shows that ‘performance’ on issues that improve the day-to-day existence of people are not considered important enough by the BJP leadership.

The emphasis is thus on the post-pandemic food dole and mega-projects – expressways, airports, religious constructions, and others. Time will tell if this surreal narrative and sales pitch will attract adequate buyers to ensure the BJP’s return in 2022, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Attendances and absences at the corridor inauguration may also trigger a fresh round of developments within the BJP. Either way, India and the BJP are in choppy waters ahead.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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