God has Left Politics: Indian Exceptionalism?

Hartosh Singh Bal in the magazine Open:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 31 11.29 Religiosity is on the ascendant in this country as never before. In the last five years, daily attendance at Hindu shrines has risen dramatically. At Tirupati, it has gone up from 20,000 to 35,000. At Vaishno Devi, annual attendance has gone up from 5 million in 2004 to 7.7 million in the first 11 months of this year. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stuck in New Delhi debating the Liberhan report in the backdrop of what could have been, has found its vote share in consistent decline over the past decade. In the Indian general election held earlier this year, it dipped to its lowest level since the party shot to prominence in 1991. If today the party is in shambles, offering little hope even to its most committed supporters, it is because it has failed to ‘harvest the souls’ that according to conventional wisdom should have been the saffron party’s for the taking.

This paradox, India’s increasing religiosity and a right wing in terminal decline, is uniquely ours. Across the world, the growth of middle-class religiosity fuelled by consumerism has strengthened right wing movements. Countries such as Turkey, which have seen a boom in the economy, have responded by voting in right wing governments to power, and in the US, the growth of evangelism has benefitted the Republicans.

For well over a decade, this was also the trend in India. In 1987-88, the telecast of Ramayana on national television—Doordarshan had a broadcast monopoly then—gave an impetus to the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP’s) Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It was this temptation of numbers that lured Lal Krishna Advani into launching his 1990-91 Rath Yatra to usher in Ram Rajya.

For observers such as Chandan Mitra, journalist and Rajya Sabha MP representing the BJP, the rise of the saffron party coincided with a ‘surge in pop religiosity’. As he says, “Advani himself has written about how the telecast of the Ramayana helped the movement. I would certainly say that this was true from 1989 to 1999.” And then, something seems to have changed.