Much Ado About Nothing

Towns like Kairana are political pilgrimages to earn vote wealth, campaign stealth

Towns like Kairana are political pilgrimages to earn vote wealth, campaign stealth

Karl Marx wrote presciently in 1844, “Religion is opium for the people.” Years after his messianic message, religion remains the most powerful potion of political inebriation. As a result, polarisation has become the most effective marketing tool to win an election. Packaged in sermons, it captures eyeballs and footfalls fast. From the liberal universe of American society to the verdant greens of Udta Punjab, faith dominates the electoral narrative. In the US presidential race, the massacre in Orlando carried out by a demented Islamist fanatic has taken centre stage over national economics. The fight of faiths has turned so ugly that key Republican leaders have gone to the extent of holding President Obama responsible for the Orlando mayhem.

Elections in many democracies have been fought along religious lines. In China, the war over Tibet is nothing but a battle between power and prayer. But ever since Islamic fundamentalism began to pose a serious threat to human lives the world over, every election in genuine democracies is fought in the name of saving civilisation from a barbaric invasion.

In India, religion and politics is soul curry. As the countdown for the Assembly polls in the communally sensitive states of UP and Punjab begins, campaigns have acquired communal overtones. For example, for months, the drug menace dominated the electoral debate in Punjab. All the contesting parties, from AAP to the Congress, have been seeking the mandate to punish drug peddlers and save the youth from lethal addiction. But no sooner was Kamal Nath, a former Union minister and senior Congress leader, appointed the state in-charge, political engagement acquired communal colours. For the ruling SAD, on the defensive on the drug issue, the K-bomb held enough political TNT to demolish opponents. It was Nath’s suspected involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and not the performance of the Badal government, which grabbed headlines. Predictably, the Congress expected a communal backlash. The party, which was asking Punjab voters to defeat the Akalis for mis-governance, fell into the emotional trap and forced Nath to ‘voluntarily’ give up his new assignment. Earlier, during the Assembly polls in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, religion was the main plank of the BJP and its rivals. The BJP sought votes in Assam, promising to eject Bangladeshis from the state. The Congress and its allies swore by saving secularism. In Kerala, saffronistas accused both the Congress and Communists for minority appeasement.

Pigments of power play colour the chromatics of the UP poll parade. Riot pilgrimage to communal hot spots has become the hobby of all political leaders. Suddenly, Kairana, a sleepy town in western UP, is the new destination for those who promise to protect Hindutva heritage and others who swear by India’s secular identity. Hukum Singh, BJP MP from the district, all at once discovered that hundreds of Hindu families had moved out of his constituency, fearing minority aggression. He had never noticed such a massive migration happening over the past few years. But when the poll bugle sounded, Singh took up the Hindu-Muslim rivalry as a plough to reap a rich harvest for his party. He organised processions and protests. The media was given details about alleged atrocities perpetrated on Hindu families by Muslim fundamentalists. Some BJP leaders propagated the story that a few areas around Kairana were on the verge of becoming another Pakistan. The central leadership sent a fact-finding team led by one of the party’s senior office-bearers and MPs from the region. For some, it was their second pilgrimage after attending the National Executive meeting in holy Allahabad where the three rivers of faith merge. Their mandate was clear—to take polarisation propaganda forward. Expectedly, they reported an exodus of Hindu families from the region. Non-BJP parties smelt a threat to their vote banks. A delegation of non-BJP and non-Congress parties led by Rajya Sabha member D Raja visited Kairana. They found that Hindus were safe and living in communal harmony. The biggest surprise, however, was the ruling Samajwadi Party’s appeal to a few Hindu sants to conduct an independent probe. Previously, most of the visitors had never seen the under-developed town with broken roads and filthy lanes. But all political parties are convinced that the victory march to Lucknow will begin from Kairana.

In the next few months, UP will witness many yatras and counteryatras starting at Kairana and possibly ending in the state capital. The yatris and leaders talk less about development and more about threats to ‘secularism’ or ‘Hinduism’. The BJP has once again revived its demand for criminal action against family members of Mohammed Ikhlaq. Other parties are accusing BJP of divisive politics.

PM Narendra Modi, BJP Chief Amit Shah and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav still speak the language of development. But strangely, their followers defy their leaders either because of design or conviction. It is the rising number of towns like Karaina, which are attracting the maximum number of pilgrims of all shades in search of political health, vote wealth and campaign stealth.