Hindu 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. (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.