Rahul Gandhi’s temple run in Madhya Pradesh: Why the BJP should not be smug about Hindu votes

Congress president Rahul Gandhi began a round of his poll campaign in Madhya Pradesh's Malwa region with a visit to the Mahakaleshwar temple, a jyotirlinga shrine at Ujjain on Monday. This came as no surprise. Temple trips have become an inevitable part of the Congress president's itinerary these days. His mega roadshow in Bhopal one-and-a-half month ago was peppered with posters of him pouring water on the shivling at Manosarovar. Hindu priests chanting mantras have become a routine visual during his rally launches.

So what is the game plan behind the head of an avowedly secular party desperately trying to look religious?

The BJP may mock him, saying he is making a futile effort to wean Hindus away from the party, but it should be careful. Hindus are not a monolithic vote bank as it would like to believe. If Rahul gets his messaging right, he might be successful in impressing a big audience in the community, particularly in the rural areas. Also, the saffron party is underestimating the capability of the Congress to be flexible on principles while responding to emerging situations.

Gauging from people's response to Rahul in Madhya Pradesh, where a high-decibel campaign for the Assembly polls is underway, the party appears to have blunted to some extent the charge that it is anti-Hindu.

The Congress president tweeted in Hindi on Monday morning about his two-day Madhya Pradesh Sankalp Yatra and about his offering prayers to Lord Shiva by visiting the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain.

Here’s a look at how Rahul is mixing religion and electioneering in Madhya Pradesh.

The state has provided Rahul with a unique platform to experiment and launch himself in several avatars. First, he kicked off his poll campaign in August by visiting the Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga shrine in Khandwa district and paying obeisance to Lord Shiva. Later, after his return from Kailash Mansarovar, he was hailed as a ‘Shiv bhakt’, with hoardings put up across Bhopal. Further, at Chitrakoot in Satna, he has been projected as "Ram-Bhakt Pandit Rahul Gandhi."

Rahul Gandhi in Madhya Pradesh during the Congress' poll campaign. Twitter/@INCIndia

Rahul Gandhi in Madhya Pradesh during the Congress' poll campaign. Twitter/@INCIndia

Earlier, the Congress had proclaimed Rahul as a ‘Shiv-bhakt’ (a devotee of Lord Shiva) for the first time ahead of the Assembly elections held in Gujarat last year. He had visited the Somnath Temple in Gujarat and offered prayers in December 2017, which made headlines. Even during the Karnataka election, the Congress president began his campaign after visiting the famous Goddess Huligamma temple in Koppal district.

A well planned strategy

Historically, one of the biggest contributing factors for the rise of the Muslim League in pre-independence India had been the perception among Muslims that the Indian National Congress was a party of rich businessmen and Hindus. Post-independence, the Congress gradually wooed the Muslims in a big way for electoral gains.

Now, the wheels seem to have turned again. The Congress president has now begun to visit famous Hindu temples before elections – whether in Gujarat, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh.

The BJP, which has been claiming to be the sole representative of the Hindus, needs rethinking. The Congress party is gradually appropriating the Hindu plank – slowly albeit steadily. It’s a well-planned strategy of the Congress to capture the BJP’s core vote bank.

Rahul is simultaneously reaching out to the rural electorate by communicating his "soft Hindu" plank. The message he wants to deliver is that despite being a "secular, non-communal" party, the Congress is not averse to Hindu ethos. Rather, it respects the inherent idea of Hinduism.

This approach reminds one of the way the Congress appropriated the Left’s ideas over the years – starting from the days of Indira Gandhi. The party appropriated the key elements of the Left’s economic agenda and presented the same as its own. Eventually, it proved to be a death knell for the Left.

Importance of Ujjain Mahakaleshwar

Whether it is the BJP, Congress or any political party – no one can undermine the importance of the Mahakaleshwar temple – one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines in India dedicated to Lord Shiva.
It is also one of the 18 Maha Shakti Peethas, an important seat of worship of the Shakti or the goddess in Hindu tradition.

The temple finds a mention in the work Meghdutam by the great Sanskrit poet of the 4th-5th century, Kalidasa. It also finds mention in the 7th century Tamil ‘Tevaram’ hymns.

The temple complex was said to have been destroyed by the Delhi Sultan Shams-uddin Iltutmish during his raid of Ujjain in 1234-35. The present structure was built by the Maratha general Ranoji Scindia in 1734. In subsequent decades, other members of the Gwalior royalty — the Scindias — made significant additions to the temple structure.

One of the most sacred places for Hindus, the Mahakaleshwar temple has drawn the rich, the powerful and the ordinary in equal numbers.

Prior to Rahul's visit, BJP president Amit Shah had visited the shrine and offered prayers on 14 July and thereafter flagged off the ‘Jan Ashirwad Yatra’ of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Even from within the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul is not the first to have visited this revered abode of Lord Shiva. Indira Gandhi had visited the Mahakaleshwar temple in 1979, before returning to power with a huge mandate.

Nearly three decades later, the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi also visited this Jyotirlinga in 2008.

Be it the Congress or the BJP, both need the blessings of Lord Shiva, as there are 50 Assembly seats across the ten districts of the Malwa region. Out of these, the Congress and BJP hold 4 and 45 seats respectively, while one seat is represented by an independent candidate. This region can prove to be the make-or-break factor for any party to win the Assembly election.

Digvijay Singh keeps away from Rahul’s rally

In his tweet, two-term former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh said that as he had been assigned an important work by the Congress president, he would not be present in the Congress’ programmes in Ujjain and Indore.

However, according to party sources, Digvijay has deliberately been kept aside from Rahul’s rally as he has been considered ‘anti-Hindu’ due to his caustic remarks aimed at the BJP and the RSS.

The former chief minister exercises a considerable influence in Bhopal and Indore.

In the past, besides lashing out at the BJP-RSS combine, Singh on various occasions had made remarks, which were apparently aimed at minority appeasement.

Recently, he also said, “The Congress gets less votes if I campaign, give speeches.”

Temple visits and tweets notwithstanding, it is just a matter of time before the world knows who succeeded in appeasing Lord Shiva, and the electorate.


Updated Date: Oct 29, 2018 18:16 PM

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