There is a new facet emerging in the Gujarat assembly elections this year. Never before has “temple politics” played such a major role in the state since it was formed in 1960. The individual Hindu candidates used to launch their campaigning and election exercises by paying obeisance at their local temples or to their family deities, but the party top brass leading the campaign have never bothered to visit practically all important temples in their areas or on the route of their campaign.
This time, both the major political parties — the Congress and the BJP — have made it a point that their star campaigners visit important local temples wherever they go to address public meetings. While it was quite obvious for Prime Minister Narendra Modi or BJP national president Amit Shah to do so because of their religious background and RSS connections, it is quite new for Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to visit temples.
If it is a matter of prestige for the BJP and particularly, Modi, to ensure that his party retains the political power in the state as this election is being viewed as a precursor to the outcome in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress is doing everything available at its disposal to ensure that it wrests Gujarat from BJP after 22 years, to improve its prospects in 2019 general elections and come back to power at the Centre.
Whatever be the political ambitions of the two parties, the temples in the state are under the spotlight like never before. Modi visited Akshardham temple on its 25th Foundation Day on November 2. His visit was being interpreted in political circles as a part of a desperate effort to neutralise the anti-BJP campaign of young Patidar (also called Patel) leader Hardik Patel. Akshardham temple is run by one of the two influential group of the Swaminarayan sect, 80 per cent of whom are said to be Patels. While both the BJP and Akshardham temple trustees denied subsequently that Modi’s visit has anything to do with politics, the timing of PM’s visit, according to political activists, was clearly intended to boost the political prospect of the BJP. Earlier, Modi had begun his two-day Gujarat yatra on October 7 by praying at the Dwarkadheesh temple dedicated dedicated to Krishna.
Perhaps to counter Modi and BJP leaders style of political campaigning, Rahul Gandhi also began the first leg of his three-day “Navsarjan Gujarat Yatra” (March for Revival of Gujarat) from September 25 by praying at Dwarkadheesh temple in Devbhoomi Dwarka district of Saurashtra region. Whether this is a soft-Hindutva approach of the Congress in this crucial Assembly election is not clear, but it certainly appears to be a well-calculated move to counter the BJP’s projection of the Congress as an anti-Hindu or pro-Muslim party.
Interestingly, Rahul also wore a saffron scarf while going to the temple and came out with a big ‘tilak’ (vermillion) on his forehead. Not only that, he also walked 600 steps to the Chotilla hills to offer prayers at Chamunda Devi temple revered by Kathiawadis. He also visited several other temples in Saurashtra and Central Gujarat regions, including Umiya Mata temple revered by Kadva Patels and Khodaldham Temple revered by Leuva Patidars. The two Patidar sub-sects together form about 15 per cent of the state’s electorate and are also politically and financially influential.
Gandhi also visited Santram temple on at Nadiad, the birthplace of India’s first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and addressed a huge public meeting from its premises on October 10. It was from the premises of this temple that he attacked the RSS saying he had not seen “women in shorts” in RSS shakhas. Though his comments invited angry reactions from the BJP, the RSS finally accepted that the organisation does not allow women in its shakhas and instead has the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti that works among the women. This for the first time put RSS on the defensive.
Gandhi also addressed public meetings in Ranchhod Mandir at Petlad and joined people in singing of `bhajans’ in Kabir Mandir in the tribal pocket of Dahod. He also visited Bhatiji Maharaj temple in Fagvel in Kheda district and also fed a cow at Fagvel.
According to Congress leaders, Gandhi has so far visited 25 temples, including the famous Ambaji, Becharaji as also Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar. But his visit to Somnath temple on November 29 generated a controversy about whether Rahul Gandhi is a Hindu by faith or not. It happened because his name, along with Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, found entry in a register meant for non-Hindu visitors though Rahul himself had signed in another register meant for Hindu visitors only. The entry in the non-Hindu register was interpreted by the Congress leaders as a “conspiracy” of the party’s political rivals as they happen to control the management of the temple with PM Modi, BJP president Amit shah and BJP patriarch L K Advani among its trustees. Former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel is chairman of the Somnath Temple trust.
By using temples to address people and propagate his political agenda, Rahul Gandhi has blunted the attack of his political rivals in the state who never failed to describe the Congress as a party representing minorities with a view to mobilising the majority community in BJP’s favour. He also used terms like “Jai Mata ji” while concluding his public meetings at several places. The strategy has not only widened the appeal of Rahul Gandhi among the masses, it has successfully prevented the “polarisation” bid of the Congress’ political rivals that is said to be singularly responsible for BJP’s ascension to power in Gujarat in 1995 and then for perpetuation in power for 22 years. The soft-Hindutva strategy of Rahul Gandhi has neutralised all efforts to link the name of Ahmed Patel with ISIS or raising the spectre of a little-known “pro-Azadi” J-K youth leader campaigning for the Congress in Gujarat with a view to creating religious polarisation and getting sympathy for BJP.
While leaders like former Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modhwadia say the strategy has helped in politically “disarming” the BJP and creating an atmosphere in favour of the Congress all across the state, Vadodara-based Zuber Gopalani says “it is a personal matter of Rahul Gandhi to visit temples or not”. But the move has been criticised by BJP leaders like UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath during his visit to the state saying “it is mere a pretence”. BJP leaders say if Rahul Gandhi believed in temples, why did he not go to temples near his residence in Delhi. While BJP leaders dub it as a “political drama to win votes”, Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi says that “BJP is criticising Rahul Gandhi’s temple visit because this is strongly hurting BJP politically”. But political and social activist Harinesh Pandya representing NGO Janpath says “using religious places for politics in not good for democracy”.