By Alok Verma

Hitherto ideologically untouchable, temples and mosques are now the most preferred destinations to pay obeisance by the two top leaders of the top two national parties before hitting any election related trail. Politically expediency has made the two leaders realize that howsomuchover they talk about the good governance, indulge in pro-poor rhetoric, the religion and its symbols cannot be overlooked to please the voters. India is a deeply religious society, and play of religion in public life is quite natural. Hence, any party which wants to be relevant in Indian politics at the national level would have to create space for religious ethos.

The Hindutva card has been played very well by the BJP in all the electoral triumphs that the party scored over the Congress party. Since 2014 after the BJP came into power there has been a struggle for the Congress party to be going closer to any of the symbols of the majority community sentiments as it feared compromising its secular credentials. But the ruling BJP party has not ever missed an opportunity to use religion for its political goals and builds its entire narrative around religion.

Therefore, the recent overture of Rahul Gandhi visiting temples or taking a pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar is his late realization of the growing influence of the religion on Indian politics. The Congress party seems to have recrafted its poll strategy that while important political issues like rising unemployment, weak economy, social strife, inflation, petrol prices etc may still be used by them to make political diatribe against the BJP, it would also embrace religious pluralism to look more accommodative towards majority sentiments.

Despite opening up himself to the charges of compromising secular credentials Rahul Gandhi has probably decided to make himself and his party more relevant at the national level by bowing before the religious ethos. The truth however is that Indian secularism is nothing but equal respect to all faith.

We have recently witnessed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visiting Saifee Mosque in Indore and spending more than hour there sitting al evel below next to the supreme Bohra community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. Probably, this could be seen as his attempt to send out a message of integration to minority groups. Though BJP sources maintained there was no vote bank politics or any political motive behind Modi attending this programme, undoubtedly the prime minister used the occasion to emphasize that his government’s programmes are for the welfare of all sections of the society.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi has been soft peddling Hindutva by making all out efforts to look a perfect Hindu. On September 17 he began his roadshow in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh by reaffirming his religious identity after taking blessings from 11 Hindu priests and performing kanya puja. In fact, the entire state capital was plastered with posters and banners  describing him a ‘Shiv bhakt’. Even during Karnataka elections the party cadre ensured that Rahul Gandhi took blessings of the  Sringeri mutt in Chikmagalur district. He even donned the traditional attire of dhoti and shalya when he reached the temple town. During the Gujarat elections Rahul Gandhi visited temple before hitting the election campaign.

While Rahul Gandhi was seeking blessing from priests in Bhopal Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the same day( September 17) signed off his 68th birthday with a visit to the famous Shiva temple Kashi Vishwanath where he prayed for about 30 minutes, amid very tight security. A special puja was performed by the priests present at the temple and yellow “chandan”, “kumkum” and “bhasm” was smeared on the forehead of the prime minister.

This is the early glimpse of the nature of narrative that we would witness at a larger level when the country slips into the election mood in a few months. Both the ruling and opposition parties will be building their narrative around religion. And to achieve political goals both the BJP and the Congress will not maintain any distance from religion rather it will become more pronounced.

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