Holding back the “religion card” in India’s election campaign

April 24, 2009

india-election-ayodhyaHindu nationalism, Muslim “vote banks”, anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry — Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of “religion cards” to play. Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been over- shadowed by communal demagoguery.

(Photo:Voters show IDs at a polling station in Ayodhya, 23 April 2009/Pawan Kumar)

But in this election, the “religion card” doesn’t seem to be the trump card it once was. It’s still being used in some ways, of course, but the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has played down its trademark Hindu nationalism in its drive to oust the secular Congress Party from power in New Delhi. A BJP candidate who lashed out at the Muslim minority saw the tactic backfire. During a recent three-week stay in India, I found religious issues being discussed freely and frequently in the boisterous election campaign. But they were usually not the main issues under debate and not isolated from the pocketbook issues that really concern voters. Click here for the rest of my report quoted above.

advani-waves(Photo: BJP leader L.K. Advani, 8 April 2009/Amit Dave)

This is one of those stories where context is king. Thanks to the internet and India’s lively English-language media, anyone around the globe can find Indian reports highlighting the religion angle. One of the news magazines, The Week, ran an interesting cover story about the “high priests of hate.” On balance, I think it looks a bit overdone — it was written at the height of the Varun Gandhi controversy — but it had this classic anecdote:

“A former BJP minister once said that he had won five times in a row using a simple trick: his men would make an issue of a Muslim boy marrying a Hindu girl or the death of a cow in a Muslim area on the eve of elections. He lost the last Assembly election when he campaigned with a development agenda.”

But religion isn’t just on the politics pages. Outlook, another news weekly, reported that an American investor long associated with the Hare Krishna movement has offered to build a huge Hindu temple in a planned Himalayan ski resort as part of a project previously nixed by religious leaders who feared it would desecrate the mountain home of their gods.

india-voting(Photo: Elderly voter helped to cast her ballot in Puri, 23 April 2009/Jayanta Shaw)

The Economic Times reported on its property pages that “more and more Indians want to have homes in religious centres.” Real estate developers and analysts differed on whether the financial crisis would hurt this trend, some seeing a lack of faith in the market while others firmly believed these investments were good. And the tabloid Mumbai Mirror had this story about a court defending religious names on clothes.

While in Mumbai, I went to see Asghar Ali Engineer to talk about the role of religion in politics in India. He explained the central role of communalism — the use of religious, ethnic or other loyalties to mobilise social groups — in Indian politics. A noted Muslim reformer, interfaith dialogue advocate and head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, Engineer said:

Communalism is not actually a conflict between two religions but between the interests of two or more communities. It is using religious identity for political mobilisation. That is where religion becomes a tool. Religion is not a fundamental cause, religion per se does not cause any problem. Nobody is fighting whether Islam is right or Christianity is right or Hinduism is right. The main point is what the government does for Muslims, for Christians, for Hindus… The BJP bases its whole politics around accusations that Congress uses Muslims as vote banks and inclines towards them, does a lot of favours for them. ‘The Muslims vote for Congress and we are against vote bank politics,’ that’s what they claim. But the BJP itself is basing its politics on the Hindu vote bank.

India is not a nation in the classical sense as in Europe. France, for example, is built on the French language and culture. But India is a bewilderingly diverse country and we have made it one nation. Declaring it a nation was easy, but in the process of nation-building, all these forces have come into play. Whatever development takes place is not based on justice. It is highly skewed. Some religious communities get much more than others, some castes or regions get much more than others. That is why this question of identity has become so important. Those who are left out use their identity to mobilise their people. Similarly, those who are privileged see a threat when other communities mobilise, so they also have to use their identity to ward off this threat from lower castes and backwards religious communities. This is the interplay of religion and politics.

More from that interview in a later post. For more on the Indian election, see the Reuters India website and its special section on the 2009 election. Click here for a slideshow of election pictures.

Here’s a video from the second round of voting on April 23:

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