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Monday, April 19, 2021

The limits of token hinduism

Asserting their Hindu identity will not absolve politicians like West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee of the charge of vote bank politics.

Written by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe |
Updated: March 16, 2021 8:50:50 am
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses a rally in Balarampur, Purulia district, on Monday. (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

Now that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is back on the campaign trail, it would not be wrong to examine some of her statements in which she makes important claims.

Before her leg injury, the West Bengal CM had spoken at length about her religiosity, saying that she belongs “to a Brahmin family and he (the candidate pitted against her) should not play the religion card (with her)”. She had also said, “Don’t teach the Hindu dharma to me”. Earlier, she had also recited the “Chandi Path” publicly, asserting that she is a “born Hindu”.

It is amusing to listen to these proclamations from someone who has used every trick in the trade and indulged brazenly in vote bank politics, completely disregarding the feelings of the non-minority. Now things have changed so drastically that Mamata Didi is trying to wear her Hindu identity on her sleeves. Notably, Banerjee is not alone in recognising the compulsions of the changed contours of competitive politics. Not too long ago, Rahul Gandhi had talked about him being a “janeudhari”, as if the janeu is an essential part of Hinduism. Similarly, in 2017, Akhilesh Yadav had asked if the BJP considers him a Hindu or not, adding that every morning now “I will have to visit a temple and tweet a picture of that visit”. As recently as in January, the DMK president M K Stalin had asserted that there was no truth in the allegation that his party was anti-Hindu, adding, “there is no temple which is not visited by my wife. Many district secretaries of the DMK sport kumkum on their forehead and we do not criticise their faith”.

Gone are the days when there used to be a competition amongst the politicians to suggest how secular they were — and as if to establish this, try to show how irreligious they were. Scared of the imaginary allegations of majoritarianism, many used to brandish their being just accidental-Hindus. In fact, right since the independence struggle, relinquishing the Hindu identity was considered a prerequisite to earn secular credentials and thereby win the hearts of minorities. A few Hindu leaders had even declared that they were neither Hindus nor Muslims but essentially were Hindi! This was a sincere but unsuccessful attempt to win the hearts of Muslims. Post-Independence, this habit of carrying a completely unwarranted guilty conscious for being born as Hindu was taken to a ludicrous level, this time to protect minority vote banks. Today, times have changed, compelling Banerjee to assert that she too is a “born Hindu”.

Regardless of this new realisation, politicians who are desperate to establish their Hindu credentials forget that such proclamations can’t make them free from the blemish of vote bank politics. Attempts to hoodwink a vast Hindu majority by such “convenient Hindus” can’t succeed anymore. They must remember that the majority of the Hindus today are neither shy of their Hinduness (Hindutva) nor do they feel the need to shout out their way of worship from the roof top.

At least for three specific reasons, Banerjee’s “politics of rituals” may not cut any ice with the voters in West Bengal. First, she must understand that chanting “Chandi Path” cannot absolve her from the serious charges of indulging in crass vote bank politics. Not just the BJP but the likes of Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui of the Indian Secular Front (ISF) allege that “in the last 10 years, the TMC government has only fooled the Muslims and Dalits”. To cultivate a minority vote bank, she disregarded the larger good of the entire Bangla society. Ironically, a leader frowning and fuming at Jai Shri Ram is now claiming that she recites the Chandi Path every day.

Second, Banerjee must understand that Hindutva is beyond technicality and tokenism. The resilience of Hinduism is such that janeu, Chandi Path, tilak or temple visits are not the symbols every Hindu may want to associate with. Chandi Path or janeu can’t and will never be a must for each and every Hindu. Hinduism is the other name of spiritual democracy where one is free to worship any deity in his/her own way or even decline to worship entirely. A Hindu official of Aurangzeb’s court used to worship Shiva every day before eating. But the same person accepted the challenge of attacking Chhatrapati Shivaji, and defeating him. The opposite is also true. During his Sampoorna Kranti movement, Jayaprakash Narayan had given a clarion call for “janeu todo” or throwing janeus away. Worshipping Shiva didn’t automatically make Aurangzeb’s official a protector of Hindu interests, just as “janeu todo” didn’t make JP anti-Hindu.

Third, the West Bengal electorate is acutely conscious of the fact that the decade long rule of Banerjee has added no value to the governance of their state. She competes with her predecessors on the left on two counts — an absolute free hand to the lumpen elements indulging in extortions and an abysmal performance on the development front. For West Bengal’s voters, the change from left rule to the TMC government has meant “jumping from the frying pan into the fire”. West Bengal’s yearning for a party that has a proven track record in governance is making them look forward to BJP and no amount of recitals and rituals, to put it bluntly, can save Didi’s rule.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 16, 2021 under the title ‘Empty rituals bring no votes’. The writer is president, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, and a Rajya Sabha MP of the BJP

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