The prime minister is the tallest political leader in the country today. The tremendous faith that the masses have in him has helped him sail through major policy failures. In fact, failures such as demonetisation seem to have strengthened the people’s faith in him. The rise in fuel prices has made no dent in this faith. Against this backdrop, one wonders why he didn’t use his political capital and oratorical skills to dissuade the devotees from coming to Kumbh this year.
Recently, the PM interacted with students and even offered tips for facing exams. Could he not have had a similar dialogue with the devotees at Kumbh? It would have certainly had some effect on the number at Haridwar. The mainstream media could have repeatedly transmitted his appeal to the devotees. The BJP’s all-powerful and efficient social media could have played its role in making the prime minister’s message reach every nook and corner of the country. Following this massive campaign, the state administration could have imposed strict restrictions. All this should have been tried as the stakes were very high. The prime minister could have drawn upon the rich tradition of the Bhakti movement in the Hindu tradition to convince devotees that there are many paths toward punya and moksha.
But the prime minister chose not to do this. This cannot be without reason, and raises many disturbing questions about the Indian state and the present state of Hindu society.
It was believed that unlike monolithic religions such as Islam and Christianity, Hinduism won’t pose any challenge to the secular state. Thus, in the Indian context, the word “secular” was interpreted as sarva dharma sama bhava. The original meaning of secular seemed irrelevant in the Indian context. Medieval Europe saw conclusive defeats of organised religion by the idea of a secular state. Religion got restricted to otherworldly faiths. This emancipation from the clutches of religion triggered progress in all walks of life. Such a battle was considered irrelevant in the Indian context, as the religion of the majority was not monolithic, incapable of producing a “dharmsatta”. This belief now needs serious reconsideration. The otherworldly faith of Hindus is giving rise to powerful dharmsatta and the Indian state appears weak facing it. The prime minister’s reluctance to appeal to the devotees shows this weakness. It portends a precarious future for Hindus.
Any political project to organise the masses based on their religious identities tends to use three strategies. One, cultivate in them a sense of victimhood. Two, cultivate suspicion — if not hatred — against the people of other religions. Three, not just ignore the religious reformers but also question their integrity. The last is important as reformers challenge the ritualistic aspect of religion that makes organising around religion difficult. It is no wonder that the abusive language that was hurled at Narendra Dabholkar soon after his assassination was not condemned by any mainstream Hindutva organisation.
Contrasting the failure of the state to exercise any control at the Kumbh with that of the Pandharpur Yatra in Maharashtra is instructive. The state government tried its best to persuade the “varkaris” to suspend the yatra this year. After sustained efforts, the government succeeded. This was not a mean achievement, as the Pandharpur Yatra has a long tradition and is an inherent part of Maharashtra’s culture.
The prime minister too must have wished that the holy bath at the Kumbh should be avoided this year. But he couldn’t appeal to the devotees to do so, fearing probably that it would hurt the sentiments of the Hindu vote bank. Times have changed and his fears may not be unfounded. This is the inevitable fallout of the Hindutva ideology.
Ironically, the political ideology that made Narendra Modi the most powerful leader in the country has also curtailed his power at this crucial moment. The price to be paid could be heavy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 24, 2021 under the title ‘Faith, power and the state’. Murugkar writes on economic and social issues.