Narendra Modi's visit to Sita's birthplace in Nepal an exercise for BJP to shed charges of misogyny, patriarchy

More than 25 years ago, on 6 December 1992, when karsevaks demolished Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, the air reverberated with chants of "Jai Shree Ram". This event was a watershed moment in the socio-political history of India for two reasons. One, under the aegis of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and leadership of LK Advani, the BJP appointed itself as the custodian of Ram and majority religion of India i.e., Hinduism. This allowed the party to define its electoral contours and communicate its social agenda to the country's electorate. The party decided to speak for those Hindus, who were otherwise unsure of wearing their religion on their sleeve, for the fear of being announced as non-secular. Two, it forced other political stakeholders in the system to come out of their closets and present their political stance on religion.

Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, right, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit the Janaki Temple, a revered Hindu temple in Janakpur, Nepal on Friday. PTI

Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, right, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit the Janaki Temple, a revered Hindu temple in Janakpur, Nepal on Friday. PTI

India is a religious nation with stark caste fault lines. As a result, the role of religion and caste in national polity can neither be denied nor underestimated. This is also the reason why every political party has pandered to some religion or caste during its course of existence. While certain political parties decided to appeal to a specific minority religion or marginalised section of the society, the BJP chose to excel at this game by appealing to the majority. It is simple arithmetic -- to maximise its vote share, the party needed to maximise its outreach and Hindus form 80 percent of the Indian population. The party invoked symbols of Hinduism (like Ram, Krishna, Ganga, Durga etc.), proliferated the culture as an integral part of its agenda and gave the impression of Hindu puritanism. Although the party did run the risk of alienating the non-Hindus, once again, the arithmetic was worth the risk.

Being the only party to champion the causes of the majority, the party under the leadership of Narendra Modi has found itself weighed down by expectations of both, religious leaders and its core voters. On the one hand, religious leaders expect the party to propagate the religion and build a Ram Mandir at the disputed site, its core voters hope the party will broaden its agenda to economic growth and development. Moreover, the party is frequently found battling with the fringe, who speak the language of Hindutva.

The BJP, in its current form, has two core competencies. One, a well-oiled electioneering machinery which drills down to the last voter at every booth. Two, a strategic think tank which adopts a multi-dimensional approach to conquer election contests. All three—timing, agenda and itinerary—of the prime minister’s current Nepal visit reflects an intelligent convergence of the aforementioned competencies.

Reviving Sita

The prime minister kicked off his third visit to Nepal, from Janakpur, the place where it is believed that King Janaka found a baby girl in a furrow and named her Sita. This makes the city an important pilgrimage for Hindus. However, there is a deeper insight into the prime minister’s visit to Janakpur – revive Sita and project himself as a leader who believes in women empowerment and gender equality. This is in continuation with his relentless pursuit to abolish instant Triple Talaq – one of the many practices that endorse a patriarchy. On multiple occasions, I have personally expressed by disagreement with the slogan, "Jai Shree Ram", for in actuality, the slogan is "Jai Siya Ram".

Legend goes, that as a wedding gift, Lord Ram made two promises to his wife Sita. One, that he would practice monogamy. Two, to ensure Sita gets her due respect, her name would always be said before Ram – Siya Ram.

Against the backdrop of disdainful instances like the rape of a little girl in Kathua, Jammu and growing crime against women, the prime minister’s flagship slogan, "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" has met with significant disapprobation. By paying homage to Sita at Janakpur, the lady who partook her husband’s arduous exile with full strength, refused to cede to Ravana, lived as a single-mother, the BJP will absolve itself of repeated charges of misogyny and patriarchy.

Ram Mandir

Even 25 years after the Babri Majid was demolished, the site stands disputed. Critics have accused BJP of using Ram as an electoral dividend and even challenged the party’s commitment to fulfil its perpetual promise to its voters to build a Ram temple at the disputed site. Ram Mandir found its mention in BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, "BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya." The same was reiterated in the party’s manifesto for Uttar Pradesh in 2017. It is the only party that has made its stance on the historic dispute, unequivocal and categorical. However, as the case continues to meander within courtrooms, there is visible unrest on the issue among both, the religious heads and the electorate. To mitigate the moral hazard, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced 100-metre tall statue of Lord Ram by the river Saryu. The Opposition lashed out at the BJP for making infeasible election promises.

As the prime minister announced a direct bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya, he has once again revisited both, Ayodhya and his election manifesto. By periodically revisiting his pending promises, the prime minister is making a strong case for second-term in office.

Ramayana Circuit – Karnataka Elections

From Janakpur, the prime minister has announced joint development of the Ramayana Circuit, one among the 13 tourist circuits under the Swadesh Darshan scheme. The Ramayana Circuit is expected to cover destinations where Lord Ram is believed to have travelled across India, including Hampi, the election bound state of Karnataka. It is believed that the Kishkindha Kanda of Ramayana is set in Hampi, where Hanuman first met Ram. Poised to be a part of the circuit, the projected increase in revenue and tourist footfall will have a recency effect just one day before the voting day.

Even while addressing an election rally at Sarwad village in Vijayapura district, the prime minister spoke about Swadesh Darshan Scheme under which Anegundi and Hampi would be developed. Steering clear from the checkered past of mining scams, sitting BJP MP B Sreeramulu has often spoken about reviving Hampi and making it an international tourism hub. As voters go to caste their vote in Bellary on 12 May, 2018, the prime minister's Nepal visit will have a very strong recall.

The prime minister’s visit to Muktinath is of equal importance, as the shrine is sacred for Hindu Vaishnavas, a sub-sect predominant in Tamil Nadu. Modi’s visit to Nepal, a day before Karnataka poll is strategic. This visit, unlike his other foreign visits, is intended for domestic messaging than pure diplomatic deductions in the neighbourhood. The prime minister’s innovative politics is clearly setting the bar higher, not just for present day opposition, but also his successors.


Updated Date: May 11, 2018 19:07 PM

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