The politics of Kumbh: Does the costliest Mela have a vote bank agenda?

It’s a surreal sight, and yet in a state that has been on a renaming overdrive, it is perhaps the very image of a Hindutava culture being embodied. Approximately 200 people set off from various parts of Bundelkhand, in what is essentially a state-sponsored caravan, to the ongoing Kumbh Mela in erstwhile Allahabad, now Prayagraj.

Khabar Lahariya January 29, 2019 17:23:26 IST

It’s a surreal sight, and yet in a state that has been on a renaming overdrive, it is perhaps the very image of a Hindutava culture being embodied. Approximately 200 people set off from various parts of Bundelkhand, in what is essentially a state-sponsored caravan, to the ongoing Kumbh Mela in erstwhile Allahabad, now Prayagraj.

The procession we’re reporting on is similar to many others across the state, and the country, journeying towards Pragyaraj in Uttar Pradesh for a cleansing dip in the holy rivers of Ganga and Yamuna; after all, the total number of visitors this year is estimated at a whopping 150 crore. “We left the Ashram on 19 December, there are 200 of us,” said devotee Pashuram, who is travelling hundreds of kilometeres from Vidhisha, Madhya Pradesh to attend this year’s Kumbh Mela, a 55-day festival, touted as the ‘biggest peaceful religious gathering in the world’. The festival started off on 15 January and concludes on 4 March. “All the devotees try to reach Kumbh before the designated days,” said Nageshwar from Chitrakoot, who was also part of the procession.

What might be unique to this caravan, however, is that it is funded, unofficially, by official sources — it is the culmination of a month spent in the badlands, where everyone, from local health workers to reporters, was being wooed by government officials to join them on the trip. “Including travel and food expenses, we need a total of 6-8 lakh,” said Pashuram, who is in-charge of everyone's food and stay provisions, “And for our stay in Kumbh, it will cost extra.”

It seems to be a case of do-the-Math-and-politicking in a state that has set aside a budget of Rs 4200 crore, three times more than that of the 2013 Mela. The Uttar Pradesh government, after all, has been prepping for the Kumbh much like the faithful, including those treating the journey as a junket. Roads have widened, encroachments razed, dividers constructed, and half a dozen flyovers have been built in the city. 6000 state buses have been deployed to ferry pilgrims to and fro from Kumbh. 800 special trains are running to Pragyaraj to make it more accessible to those who'd like to attend. Massive accommodations for stay, beyond just the basic facilities and makeshift tents from the past editions, have been erected on Mela grounds. All of it spearheaded and massively pushed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his administration. “Sahab aaj duty par nahi hai, snaan ke liye gaye hai (The officer is not at work today, he’s gone for the ritual bath)”, is a common enough excuse we hear these days, even at the district level, as we scramble for official bytes.

Not that it should be a thing of shock or surprise, given how all the important party leaders have made and/or are making a beeline for Kumbh, including the President of India — a first in Kumbh history. With larger than life posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s smiling face, helpfully complemented with information about flagship BJP campaigns, it is clear that this year’s Kumbh Mela is laden with clear political intent and import.

Something that was also evident to Devdas, a saint who had previously attended Kumbh in Pragyaraj, Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain. “The government must play a role in Kumbh,” he explained, “but with this one I can see that this government is far more involved.”

Uttar Pradesh government has relentlessly advertised the Mela, especially to NRIs. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have waxed poetic about the holy dip, in the lead-up to January 15. With a push to provide luxury, hotel-like accommodation, experience packages and curated tours, the attempts to please and coax economically well-off are no secret. With the 2019 elections mere months away, a commitment to making Kumbh larger than life seems to be an attempt to secure votes from the Hindu belt.

As for the renaming exercise? The Mela itself hasn’t been spared. As Pashuram explained, “Actually, this is the Ardhkumbh, which is organised every six years. The main Kumbh Mela only comes once every 13 years. But as per Yogi ji’s orders, Ardhkumbh has been renamed Kumbh and the larger one will now be called Mahakumbh.” But why so, we ask. “No comments,” said Pashuram, urging the caravan to move on from its long break.

Onwards, Prayagraj!

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

 

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