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A Leap of Faith in Indian Politics

John LANCASTER

Monday 5 May 2003, by LANCASTER*John

Article paru dans le Washington Post, ?dition du lundi 5 mai 2003.

Secular Party Shifts Strategy as Hindu Nationalism Dominates Discourse.

BHOPAL, India — Digvijay Singh is by most accounts a modern-minded man. Educated as an engineer, the urbane and aristocratic chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh has won international recognition for his efforts on conservation, Internet access in rural areas, and affirmative action for women and the lowest castes.

How, then, to explain his recent infatuation with cow urine?

"I only drank it once," he said, a tad defensively, before extolling its virtues — in distilled form — as a potential treatment for diseases as serious as cancer and AIDS.

"There’s a tremendous medicinal value," he said, adding that cow urine also makes "an excellent pesticide" when combined with leaves from India’s ubiquitous neem tree.

Whatever the scientific basis for Singh’s claims, there is no mystery about the political one: Singh, a leading light of India’s secular-oriented Congress party, is facing a tough reelection challenge from Uma Bharti, a saffron-robed Hindu mendicant — who also happens to be a member of Parliament — from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads India’s coalition government.

Cows and cow products are sacred to Hindus, who represent 82 percent of India’s billion-plus people. Touting the wonders of cow urine, analysts say, is part of Singh’s strategy to neutralize the appeal of the Hindu-nationalist doctrine — called "Hindutva" — at the core of the BJP’s platform.

More broadly, it is an example of how the Hindu-nationalist agenda is coming to dominate political discourse in India, drowning out debate on other topics and sowing doubts about the country’s future as a secular, pluralistic democracy.

Singh, 56, hasn’t stopped with bovine waste. In the past few months, he has advocated a nationwide ban on the killing of cows for meat; approved the opening of an ancient mosque — said to contain a ruined Hindu temple — to Hindus once a week; and accused his challenger of offending the monkey god Hanuman by offering a non-vegetarian birthday cake at a shrine to the Hindu deity. (The cake allegedly contained an egg.)

Political commentators have dubbed the strategy "soft Hindutva." They describe it as an effort by the Congress party to undercut charges by the BJP and its allies that Congress is insensitive to Hindu concerns in the run-up to crucial state elections that will set the stage for national polls next year.

"I am a deeply religious person," said Singh, whose forehead bears the vermilion dot that Hindus apply before prayer. "I want to take them on squarely and call their bluff."

But the approach has its critics. Secular liberals, in particular, say soft Hindutva legitimizes issues best left out of politics and could inflame communal passions at the expense of India’s large Muslim minority, which often has been on the receiving end of right-wing Hindu wrath. At the very least, they say, the strategy has diverted attention from more important issues, such as health care, in a country where half of all children are malnourished and one in 11 dies before the age of 5.

"It is in the long run dangerous, because inch by inch you are giving them space, and you are giving public respectability to issues that don’t deserve to be in the public domain," said Zoya Hasan, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "The other side is defining the terms of the debate."

India was founded as a secular state, but religion has always played an important role in its politics. That has been especially true over the past decade, as BJP appeals to Hindu pride have helped the party replace Congress as India’s dominant political force. The BJP also has profited from a sense among many Hindus that Congress has been overly solicitous toward Indian Muslims.

Part of a family of Hindu revivalist groups, the BJP has often been accused of fanning communal passions for political advantage. Human rights groups, for example, have charged the BJP-led government in the state of Gujarat with tacitly supporting Hindu mobs that killed hundreds of Muslims last year; the violence began when Muslim extremists set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists, killing 59. Last fall, the state government was reelected in a landslide.

The BJP’s political opponents now accuse the party of trying to apply the "Gujarat formula" — vows to restore Hindu honor coupled with thinly veiled attacks on the patriotism of Indian Muslims — to elections in other states.

Madhya Pradesh, in central India, is one of them. As the campaign season heated up earlier this year, activists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council — which is closely allied with the BJP — began accusing Singh and his government of condoning "cow slaughter" in the state, where the practice is outlawed. Scores of Muslim-owned shops were burned.

"It became a huge headache for us," said an aide to Singh who asked to remain anonymous. "They were trying to create a Gujarat-like situation with their rhetoric on cow slaughter. That’s when the [chief minister] decided to take them on directly on Hindutva."

To that end, the state government accused the BJP-led government in New Delhi of presiding over an increase in beef exports. Singh lent his support to a campaign to enact a nationwide ban on the killing of cows. Congress party activists in the state went even further, putting up posters that accused Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of eating beef. (Singh denies any role in that effort.)

"He doesn’t want to alienate the Hindus," the aide said. "After all, he’s a politician. He has to get their votes."

Similar calculations were at work when Singh, in an effort to defuse violent protests, moved to grant Hindus access once a week to a ruined temple in a mosque in the city of Dhar.

More recently, Singh and his political allies sought to make political hay out of the birthday cake episode, forcing Bharti to publicly declare that the offering was in fact a "milk cake" that did not contain an egg. She subsequently called for a criminal inquiry to prove her innocence. Singh now says he was offended by the candle that adorned the cake, asserting that only oil lamps should be brought inside a temple.

In an interview at his official residence, Singh said his raising of religious issues was intended only to show that the BJP has no monopoly on Hinduism. He accused the party and its allies of distorting a religion founded on principles of tolerance and nonviolence and noted that his government has arrested Hindu as well as Muslim extremists.

"Hindus by nature are not communalists," he said, accusing the Hindu nationalists of promoting a chauvinistic form of the religion that is "dividing the society" and thus playing into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. "We are breeding Osama bin Ladens in the neighborhood," he said.

A onetime child preacher, Bharti is a Hindu sadhvi — a kind of holy woman — and former federal cabinet minister who has long been associated with the Hindutva movement. In 1992, she was arrested along with other prominent politicians on charges of inciting a Hindu mob that demolished a mosque allegedly built on the birthplace of the god Ram. The incident set off communal riots that killed as many as 2,000 people. The case involving Bharti, who is now in her mid-forties, is still pending.

A campaign appearance by Bharti this week in Patan, a sunbaked farming community about 140 miles east of Bhopal, the state capital, had the air of a religious festival. As speakers offered prayers under a canopy set up in the main square, Bharti sat on the stage receiving garlands of marigolds and occasionally rupees from members of the crowd, some of whom touched her feet in a gesture of devotion.

Bharti then rose to speak, accusing Singh’s government of neglecting basic services such as road work and power. But her message was heavy with the symbols of Hindutva. "In the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands of cows have been butchered," she told the crowd, urging her listeners to begin each day by giving roti, a kind of bread, to a cow. "Leave it at her feet. Say, ’Hey mother, bless us with the BJP government, which will make you fearless and will help you roam around freely like you did before, during the times of Lord Krishna.’ "

In an interview on her way to the next public appearance, Bharti denied that religion was playing a central role in her campaign. "Hindutva is my life, my soul, my personal belief," she said. "But here in Madhya Pradesh, the issue is bad governance."

P.S.

Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.

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