The recent inauguration of a municipal road in Kashi, the Lok Sabha constituency of the prime minister, was converted by him into a grand show of devotion to the Hindu religion — like the inauguration or foundation-laying functions of earlier projects at Ayodhya, Badrinath, Kedarnath and other Hindu religious places, all at a considerable cost to the government exchequer. These events have raised many questions of propriety in a secular democracy. In an earlier article, I had talked about the crossing of the “Lakshman rekha” by the PM, when I noticed that he was freely using government functions organised at government cost to lambast his political opponents, especially in Uttar Pradesh. That is a fine line of democratic behaviour that many of our worthies in politics have often violated but I was shocked when it came from no less a person than the PM. But that is nothing compared to the recent show at Kashi, all dedicated to the glory of the Hindu religion, spread over two days and covered live by all media channels and comprehensively by the entire print media. “Is India a secular democracy anymore?” is a question on many people’s lips, while the majority celebrate it as the final revenge of history taken by the present prime minister for all the wrongs done by the Muslim invaders in the past.
As I understand it, India is still a secular state, which means that the state has no religion and is bound by the Constitution to treat all religions as equal and make no distinction between the followers of one as compared to the other. I have been in positions of power and authority myself, first in administration and later in politics, almost all my life. Nobody taught me to be secular but I was secular naturally and, therefore, had no difficulty in treating the followers of all faiths equally. I was and continue to be a devout Hindu. Apart from doing my prayers on a daily basis, going to temples and the places of pilgrimage, I have walked barefoot a hundred kilometres from Sultanganj in Bihar to Baba Dham (Deoghar) now in Jharkhand, carrying a ‘Kanwar’ with the holy Ganga water to be offered to Lord Shiva for five years running. But it was always a personal pursuit, as it should be. I even persuaded the great socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, who was chief minister of Bihar then, to create adequate facilities for the pilgrims on the 100 km route, like clean dharamshalas, drinking water facilities, toilets, etc. at government cost. I still remember the lively debate we had in the largely socialist Bihar cabinet then about whether the government should spend money on a purpose like this. The issue was settled in favour of doing so on the grounds that it served a larger public purpose. But neither Karpoori Thakur nor any of his cabinet colleagues, who included representatives of the then Jan Sangh, made a song and dance about it. There were no grand foundation-laying or inaugural functions. I shudder to imagine what would have happened if such a project had been undertaken today.
Milking religion, caste, language, region or any other identity for personal and political gain is not unknown in electoral politics in our country, as indeed the world over. But it has been muted and not done as openly and shamelessly as it is being done today. The present prime minister is not the first BJP prime minister of India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had preceded him in that post and while I shall not judge Narendra Modi by the standards of Jawaharlal Nehru, I am well within my rights to judge him by the standards set by Vajpayee. And knowing him as I do, I have no hesitation in saying that Vajpayee would never have done any of those hundreds of things Modi has done to violate the spirit of the Constitution, including the grand show in Kashi the other day. “Raj Dharma” can be consigned to the dustbin.
For the prime minister in our democracy, as indeed for all the other functionaries, religion should be a strictly private affair. Then, why is Modi making such a show of it? The simple and obvious answer is that UP elections are approaching and Yogi Adityanath’s performance has been so poor that the only hope the BJP has of coming anywhere near the majority mark is through a well-executed communal divide. So, that is the game in UP and the same formula will again be tried in the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
But the UP elections are only a semi-colon, important but not the ultimate. The main battle will be fought in 2024. The elections then will decide whether the idea of India, as we have known it, will survive in this country or not. Will India remain a secular democracy or become a Hindu Pakistan? Will the corporate, militaristic, fundamentalist and pseudo-nationalist interests take over the country and drive it to perdition? What happened in Kashi is a matter of great concern. But of greater concern is the more difficult battle which lies ahead.
In the meanwhile, a very important question is: Does Prime Minister Modi go anywhere without a photographer?
TThis column first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2021 under the title ‘The Kashi echo’. The writer is a former Union minister and currently, vice-president, All-India Trinamool Congress