The BJP has been ruling Madhya Pradesh continually for more than a decade now. After an initial period of uncertainty, the party, under Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, has moved from strength to strength. Until the MP Professional Examination Board scam came to light, the Congress appeared to be an unwilling player in the waiting game for the BJP to wear itself down in office. This reticence of the main Opposition party has not only allowed the BJP and its functionaries to brazenly exploit government machinery to partisan ends, but also made the BJP’s consolidation a walk in the park, and religious symbols and practices the new “normal” in the state.
The media has regularly used adjectives like “soft-spoken”, “reasonable”, “non-controversial” and “moderate” to describe Chouhan. Yet, the programme and activities of his government have been neither moderate nor non-controversial. Besides the numerous allegations of corruption, his government has made a silent culturalist turn characterised by an overt acknowledgement of religiosity.
Over the last decade, the government has unabashedly endorsed (Hindu) religion, religious beliefs and practices. Chouhan has personally participated in a variety of yagnas and pujas, including a som yagna in Ujjain, designed to induce rains, and annual shastra pujas on the occasion of Dussehra. This display of religiosity, when a substantial section adheres to religions other than Hinduism, does not necessarily help make a healthy public sphere.
The state has moved out of the BIMARU list and the welfarist commitment of the MP government has often been lauded. For the party, the developmental programme provided a convenient vehicle to push its cultural agenda. Many of the government’s schemes, though universal, are distinctly identified in their nomenclature with the majority religion or party leaders. But here, the BJP has only followed the Congress logic in an attempt to create its own legacy.
Among the government’s schemes, the Mukhyamantri Teerth Darshan Yojana takes the cake. Under this programme, the visits of senior citizens of different religious communities to pilgrimage centres of their choice, including places of religious importance outside the country, are subsidised. In the context of the changing political economy, this is a fit example of what Meera Nanda calls the “state-temple-corporate complex”, where the state works to boost the market for religious services.
At the same time, the government has also worked hard to socialise schoolchildren in “Bharatiya” values. These include the now aborted compulsory surya namaskar drill and the recitation of bhojan mantra before (government-sponsored) mid-day meals. Besides this, for more than two and a half years, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan funds intended to promote the habit of reading among students were used to distribute an outright biased monthly magazine, Devputra.
While “ghar wapsi” may be a recent addition to our vocabulary, MP’s association with the practice is older. In 2011, the government helped organise the Narmada Samajik Kumbh, an event planned to get the tribal population back to the Hindu fold.
More formally, the government machinery has worked overtime to check religious conversion. While the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, was originally intended to prevent induced, forcible or coercive conversions, it has been used to prevent voluntary change of religion. Numerous incidents show that “inducement” and “coercion” have been interpreted in a partisan manner to intimidate and harass people.
The government in MP has been clearly pursuing a majoritarian agenda that essentially informs minorities that their beliefs and practices are those of outsiders and they need to be acculturalised into so-called Bharatiya mores. At the same time, the politicisation of ordinary and everyday religiosity has progressively helped the party build cultural capital and reinforce Hindu consciousness. Strategically, the party and its collateral organisations have carried out their activities without much fanfare and large-scale violence — this has helped deflect mass attention.
Three reasons can be offered to explain why the Hindu majoritarian cultural agenda has become the new “normal” in MP. First, across the globe, in liberal democracies, the substantive impact of the rightwing parties in office has been on cultural issues. While working within the democratic framework, they constantly attempt to shift the meaning of people from demos to ethnos, as noted by political scientist Michael Minkenberg, who works on the radical right. The BJP is no different as it, too, has chased the ideal of a homogeneous people.
Second, the nature of party competition and the process of social change may also provide with us some clues. MP has always had a two-party system where the primary competition has been between the Congress and the Jan Sangh/ BJP. Both parties were initially dominated by so-called upper caste leaders. The Congress, first under Arjun Singh and later Digvijay Singh, read the tea leaves well and attempted to broaden its social base. This closed the space for social justice parties.
The BJP not only emulated the Congress, but, without competition from other social justice parties, also moulded the process of social change to suit its own vision of a national community. Research studies have found that backward castes in MP, unlike in other northern states, have sought to identify themselves with the Hindu sense of an organic community rather than to any particular caste. This peculiar political socialisation has contained social transformation within the contours of the party’s larger agenda. At the same time, the Congress itself has sought to acquire a pro-religious image, moving away from its traditional “nothing to do with overt religious symbolism” position.
Finally, the government closely approximates the BJP’s ideal model, dominated by those who share an RSS or ABVP background. They probably represent the new social elite, whom the RSS believes should replace the Nehruvian, English-speaking, middle-of-the-road liberals. They share a fanatical commitment to Hindu nationalism, Hindi and tradition — though not necessarily to other moderate Sangh values like austerity and discipline. Not surprisingly, the list of allegations of corruption and maladministration has grown over time.
The writer is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad