Modi's Global Temple-mania And A Recipe For Indian Elections

The inauguration of the BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi is part of the BJP's plans to whip up a religious delirium as a strategy for the 2024 elections in India

Modi's Global Temple-mania And A Recipe For Indian Elections

On February 14, Valentine's Day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The temple is touted to be the largest in West Asia, and, in fact, it is the first stone Hindu temple to be built in a region which Islam, Christianity and Judaism have otherwise dominated. 

This is the second grand temple which Modi would inaugurate within three weeks and will aggravate his image of a "Virat Hindu leader" ahead of upcoming general elections in India. 

On January 22, Modi unveiled the Ram Temple in Ayodhya in a hysterically televised ceremony. The event on February 14 in the United Arab Emirates will be preceded by "Ahlan Modi", a special welcome to the Indian prime minister on the lines of "Hawdy Modi", which was organised for him in the US by then-President Donald Trump in 2019. 

The temple politics suits Modi's political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party has transformed from a niche Hindutva outfit, Janasangh, into a grass-root political organisation riding solely on the Ram temple movement in the 1980s.

The charioteer of the Ram temple movement is Karachi-born Lal Krishna Advani. Advani has been conferred India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, only this week by the Modi government.

The BJP has exploited the movement to construct the Ram temple as a vehicle for electoral mobilisation. The movement has also served as the Raamvaad (panacea) to subdue the impact of the deep caste split in India's Hindu society. Caste is the gravest threat to Hindutva politics, but the BJP has carefully crafted a bulwark of religiosity around temples, anti-Muslim rhetoric, riots, and the cause of patriotism interspersed with undertones of saving Hinduism from danger. Pakistan, too, occupies a special place in this manifesto.

The 2024 polls will interestingly be the first elections for the BJP since 1984, when the party will not have to promise the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It will instead boast its completion. It is already busy recording party songs which eulogies how "BJP has brought back Lord Ram". 

To cash in on temple-mania, even the shopping malls in various cities installed large replicas of the newly-constructed Ram Temple to remind shoppers of their "religious obligation"

Besides, the BJP has invigorated its cadres to ensure a regular flow of religious tourists to Ayodhya and renovate all Ram temples across the country, especially in North-Central India, as it hopes to rally support across caste divides. 

"Mostly religious preachers belonging to lower castes are being encouraged. It will kill two birds with two stones – first, it will seep religiosity into the masses as the major chunk of the temple-going crowd comes from such social groups; second, it will fill the party's kitty with their votes. Lower castes comprise the largest section of voters in India," a political reporter with a national Hindi language daily told The Friday Times from the Indian state of Jaipur. 

He said that many Hindu preachers who have recently shot into the limelight hail from the lower castes, such as Mahant Balaknath Yogi, who also happens to be a BJP provincial legislator in the state of Rajasthan. 

"Balaknath, like Baba Ramdev, is a Yadav, a backward caste," the reporter pointed out. 

To whip up a religious frenzy, a month before the consecration of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - the parent body of the BJP, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) - a sister outfit of BJP, had launched a drive to unite households in the North-Central parts of India. The campaign was to distribute akshat (rice mixed with turmeric and ghee) among 50 million households. The akshat is an invitation to visit a temple. Once a household receives akshat, they feel an obligation to pay obeisance at the temple. 

The strategy of the BJP purely aims to reap electoral dividends and that the party has sniffed "a decline in public support"

The invitation, according to those who have seen it, also requested people to gather at a neighbouring temple on the day of the Ram Temple's inauguration and then to return regularly, preferably every week. 

To cash in on temple-mania, even the shopping malls in various cities installed large replicas of the newly-constructed Ram Temple to remind shoppers of their "religious obligation". Even the annual numaish (exhibitions), which are organised by the district authorities for locals, have put up similar replicas of the Ram Temple. In some places, stage dramas depicting the story of Lord Ram are being organised. 

SB (name withheld on request), a senior BJP functionary and election in-charge in a North Indian state, explained to the The Friday Times why his party was going into overdrive to cash in on religion and temples. 

"The ten years of the Modi government have many achievements to list before the public. But it can't be sold to win over the masses in the rural hinterlands, especially among the low castes. They still fall for emotions and religion," he said, adding that competition from regional satraps can best be blunted by gung-ho delirium. 

Political pundits, too, feel that the strategy of the BJP purely aims to reap electoral dividends and that the party has sniffed "a decline in public support".

Kubool Qureshi, a senior political analyst with TV9 Bharatvarsh news channel, says that despite PM Modi's claims, the BJP has been staring at stagnation. 

"The party has won maximum seats in all North-Central states where it is well-ensconced in power. It has used all of its caste cards to the hilt, but it can't escape anti-incumbency backlash that has piled up in a mammoth measure in recent years," Qureshi said, adding that real issues are simmering just below this shiny veneer.

"Though the media doesn't highlight it prominently, unemployment is soaring to record high in the country. Since 2014, there has not been a rise of even a single penny in the income of lower strata of the society that makes up around 35% of the population," he said, adding, "Theomania drowns out all these stark facts. Perhaps another important link of this mania is the court-granted permission for Hindu worship at Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi just ahead of the upcoming elections," says Qureshi. 

He adds that ever since the BJP invented the religious, or more appropriately, the temple card, it has made strides ahead only.

The consecutive inaugurations, from Ayodhya to Abu Dhabi, serve as potent symbols in Modi's electoral playbook, tapping into emotive voter sentiments and strategically navigating caste divisions. The BJP's temple-centric narrative not only seeks to secure support but also deflects attention from pressing issues like unemployment and income stagnation. As the countdown to the 2024 elections commences, the success of this religious grandstanding remains intertwined with the party's ability to balance symbolic gestures with addressing the nuanced challenges facing the nation translating it into votes.

The author is an independent journalist in New Delhi