What’s behind the Congress’s pro-Hindu pitch in Madhya Pradesh?

n January 30, the ‘Hamare Hanuman Sanskritik Manch’ in Madhya Pradesh organised a programme in a top Bhopal hotel to perform 12.5 million chants of the Hanuman Chalisa. The banners and posters of the programme prominently displayed Kamal Nath as the patron. Nath, however, was not mentioned as the state chief minister but as a devotee of Hanuman.

Little more than a year ago, when the BJP was in power in MP, a programme like this would have been a saffron party do, with its top leaders in attendance. Now, with the ruling Congress adopting a ‘soft Hindutva’ strategy, there is little to distinguish between the political programmes supported or sponsored by the two parties.

The Congress began its soft Hindutva pitch in the run-up to the assembly election held in November 2018. That Nath got 108 idols of Hanuman installed in his family borough of Chhindwara was bandied about. The Congress poll manifesto talked about building gaushalas in every village and developing Hindu pilgrimage centres in the state. Former chief minister and Congress heavyweight Digvijaya Singh embarked on a 2,600 km ‘Narmada Parikrama’, which he successfully completed in the summer of 2018.

Soon after coming to power, the Nath government set up the Adhyatma department (department of spirituality). The man chosen as its administrative head was Manoj Shrivastava, a bureaucrat considered to be an authority on the Ramcharitmanas and Hindu philosophy in general. Shrivastava has been working on a number of initiatives. He is overseeing the development of the Ram Vangaman Path, which traces the route Lord Ram is believed to have taken in MP during his 14-year exile. The Congress manifesto had promised that the route would be developed as a pilgrimage. The plan is to connect Chitrakoot, Panna, Jabalpur, Katni, Amarkantak, Mandla, Dindori and Shahdol by developing the route. According to religious trust and endowments minister P.C. Sharma, the route will have dedicated green cover, bus connectivity and even a cycle track at places.

While the BJP may not be able to take direct credit for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, given that it comes via a judicial pronouncement, Nath is not shying away from taking credit for a Sita temple that he has asked officials to get constructed in Sri Lanka. The Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka is being roped in for the project.

Incidentally, both the Ram Vangaman Path and Sita temple projects were announced by the erstwhile BJP government. By completing them, Nath wants to project his government as one committed to the welfare of Hindus. The chief minister has often claimed that the BJP exploits Hinduism for votes while the Congress actually works for Hindus. Talking of appealing to Hindu sentiments, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples in the run-up to the assembly elections in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat are well-known. In MP, block and district level Congress leaders are now following in the footsteps of BJP leaders and organising bhandaras, jagrans and other such gatherings. Many Congress leaders and workers on the ground endorse such moves. “While touring the constituency, the commonest demand of the electorate, besides securing houses under the PM Awas Yojana, is the holding of religious functions,” says a Congress MLA from the state’s Malwa region. “It’s a low investment-high returns model, and such events are easier to organise than doing actual development work.”

Congress strategists suggest that while the party does not want to aggressively and exclusively project itself as pro-Hindu, it wants to prevent the BJP from being seen as the sole custodian of Hindu interests. It is also felt that the Congress may come across as anti-Hindu if it does not take proactive stands on Hindu causes. In that sense, the BJP has been successful in setting the Congress’s political agenda in MP.

But will the Congress’s Hindu pitch pay off? Some Congress leaders say that while the electorate may not particularly support the party over Hindu causes, not taking up such issues would definitely go against the party. A section of the party that is more ideologically moored, however, feels that the Congress should steer clear of religion and go back to working for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, minorities and farmers. But with the BJP making inroads into these electoral segments, the dominant thought in the state Congress appears to be that its leaders should wear their religion on their sleeves.