December 19, 2021 3:11:56 am
The Prime Minister’s visit to Varanasi last week was like a Bollywood film in slow motion. The melodrama, the exaggerated colours, the bright lights and religiosity reminded me of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana. And it was as mesmerizing. I found myself glued to my TV from Modi’s morning dip in the Ganga in a saffron tracksuit, to that late night stroll on the neon-lit platform of the railway station with Yogi Adityanath by his side. Every news channel covered every moment of the trip as if nothing else was happening in the world. Channels of bhakti bent began their coverage before he landed in Varanasi with breathless, sycophantic commentary on the corridor to the Vishwanath Mandir that he had come to inaugurate.
So, what did I conclude at the end of this day in which religiosity mixed seamlessly with politics and hyper-nationalism? What did the people of Varanasi make of it? To get a sense of this I rang a Mahant of the Vishvanatha Mandir whose family home was requisitioned and torn down for the corridor. Two years ago, when we met, he was angry about the meagre compensation his family got in exchange for a home that was centuries old. He was not a fan of the corridor, so it surprised me when he said, “Let me tell you that they have built something wonderful. But, also let me say that people here do not like the way religion is being mixed with politics. This is wrong… people say that this will cost them the election. Akhilesh Yadav will win.”
The political nature of this ostensibly religious project has escaped nobody, nor has the inauguration’s timing. Attention to this was drawn even by the TV reporters in Benares who passed off paeans in praise of Modi as journalism. The Chief Justice was right when he said last week that investigative journalism had disappeared in the Indian media, but rarely has the media turned itself into a propaganda tool of the government the way that it did on Modi’s visit that day. Having dealt with officials of the Press Information Bureau for a long, long time, I can tell you that not even they, whose job is government propaganda, would have turned themselves into cheerleaders in the way that celebrated anchors did in Varanasi. So, no questions were asked, not even when the Prime Minister himself brought Aurangzeb up in his speech to remind everyone watching of who it was who had destroyed the Vishwanath Mandir and defiled it by building a mosque on its ruins.
The Prime Minister has usually refrained from dog whistles. But, the elections in Uttar Pradesh draw closer by the day and polls by political parties appear to show that Yogi is not as popular as his massive advertising campaign indicates. So, the BJP needs to bring into play their ultimate weapon: creating ugly divisions between Hindus and Muslims. The Lok Sabha election in 2019 was a defining moment for the BJP. It taught them that it was possible to win a full majority without needing a single Muslim vote. This explains why Modi no longer hesitates to remind Hindus that Aurangzeb destroyed many temples and that the wounds of history must never be forgotten. The problem is that when semi-literate, ahistorical Hindus are reminded of these wounds, the message they take home is that every living Indian Muslim is to blame for what happened centuries ago. And, that all Muslims are Pakistanis in their hearts and did not leave in 1947 only because they could not afford to. It is these divisions that the BJP hopes to play on in Uttar Pradesh.
This brahmastra is needed because people have not forgotten the total collapse of governance during Covid’s awful second wave. Nor have they forgotten that despite the Chief Minister’s vaunted claims of having brought lawlessness under control in this notoriously lawless state, it was not long ago that a teenage girl was cremated without proper rites by the police in Hathras, thereby destroying evidence of her rape. There are other horrors they find hard to forget. Expressways and airports are inaugurated almost daily these days in UP, but the people whose land and homes were appropriated for these projects continue to live in extreme poverty. In an excellent report on NDTV recently, reporters talked to people whose land was acquired for the new Jewar airport. They found them living in flimsy shacks and half-built houses because the compensation they were given allowed them to afford no more.
The truth is that not much has changed in any real way in UP since the ‘double-engine government’ came into existence in 2017, and it is this reason why it is important to divide Hindus and Muslims for Yogi to win a second term. The damage this will do to the fabric of the state is incalculable, but for the moment there will continue to be religious events lit with disco lights. In Varanasi that day they reflected off Modi as he cruised on the Ganga. Incidentally, the waters of our most sacred river remain filthy, as do most of the streets of Varanasi whose name comes from two rivers that used to once exist. The Varuna has almost disappeared and the Assi river is a pitiable drain. It is the erasure of such ugly realities that is now being sought with religiosity and hyper-nationalism.
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