On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the first phase of the grand Kashi Vishwanath corridor project to chants of “Har Har Mahadev” in his constituency of Varanasi in poll-bound UP. In his speech, he drew a link between sanskriti (culture) and samarthya (might), vikas (development) and virasat (heritage). He sought to fold into the idea of the mandir (temple) the resolve of swachhta (cleanliness), srijan (creativity) and aatma nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). A day earlier, speaking in Jaipur in Congress-ruled Rajasthan, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi drew an opposition between “Hindus” and “Hindutvavadis” — the latter, he said, sought power, not truth, followed the path of “sattagraha”, not “satyagraha”, and would do anything to win. These two speeches, one following the other, are not unrelated. Together, they help frame the contours of the political contest in the current moment, ahead of another crucial round of assembly elections, including UP.
The confrontation is with a BJP that has deftly and determinedly shifted the political centre of gravity to the right and brought the idea of the public to a point where it encompasses, without any questions asked, the images of a prime minister performing Hindu rituals and prayers, in Ayodhya last August and in Kashi this December, his every move in the spotlight — this, in a multi-religious country whose constitution declares it secular. Countering this fundamental and consequential shift, is a Congress that is still struggling to find the voice or the nuance to meet the BJP’s multi-layered challenge. A Congress that, all too often, when it doesn’t sound irresolute and feeble, seems single-toned in comparison, and ironically, given that it is making the anti-majoritarian argument, shrill. The Kashi-Vishwanath corridor project is admirable in its scale and in the apparent efficiency of its implementation — it was arguably much needed for a better pilgrimage experience for the faithful and others who flock to the ancient city on the banks of the Ganga, with Shiva its presiding deity. And yet the visual and spectacle that has accompanied its inauguration, the leading role of the PM, with BJP chief ministers in attendance, in the run-up to the UP election, also proclaims the remarkable success of a political project, led by one man. A new political common sense is being normalised, a line is being drawn, as PM Modi did on Monday, to connect the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya with the Yogi government’s promise of a medical college in every district in UP, the redevelopment of the Kashi-Vishwanath corridor with the laying of optical fibres in the sea, the majoritarian and religious with the developmental and governmental.
To combat and challenge this, the Opposition party, be it the Congress or any other non-BJP force, will have to find the language and the repertoire that can match the BJP’s agility and multi-vocality, if not the resources with which the party in power shores up its communicative dominance. By refreshing Hindutva with the muscle of power and project, redefining it in terms of nationalism and self-respect, the BJP is throwing down the gauntlet, steadily, purposefully. It needs to be picked up by the other side, to make a political fight of it, that goes beyond slogans at a rally.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2021 under the title ‘The fundamental shift’.