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How Madhya Pradesh netas are using religion to woo voters — Bhagwat Kathas, bhandaras, babas

In poll-bound state, many BJP and Congress leaders are organising lavish days-long religious events. Reasons vary from ‘spreading sanskaar’ to ‘mobilising cadres’.

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New Delhi: Rallies and speeches have their place, but Bhagwat kathas and bhandaras are currently all the rage for political heavyweights in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh.

With elections due in the state next year, political leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the Congress have been hosting lavish religious programmes to connect with the public. These occasions can go on for days and attract lakhs of devout participants. Provisions are also usually made for bhandaras (religious community meals) that may cater to as many as 50,000 people per sitting.

Several ministers of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government have already organised Bhagwat or Rama kathas (recitations from religious texts of stories about Lord Krishna and Rama respectively). These include home minister Narottam Mishra, water resources minister Tulsi Silawat, urban development minister Bhupendra Singh, public works department minister Gopal Bhargava, and transport minister Govind Singh Rajput.

According to sources, the calendars of top religious gurus and katha vachaks (spiritual orators) like Pradeep Mishra, Jaya Kishori, Dhirendra Shastri, and Avdheshanand Giri are booked from December through March. Among the prominent leaders who are expected to host kathas in the near future are former Congress CM Kamal Nath, Congress MLA Ajay Tandon, and Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, sources added.

When asked about why there is such an explosion of religious events organised by politicians, state leaders offered two broad reasons: Promoting sanskaar (cultural values) and winning voter support ahead of polls.

Minister of state Ramkishore Kawre, for instance, indicated that religious programmes were not done for political motives but to “awaken moral values”.

“After listening to such gurus speak, people are motivated to practice what they have heard. Making people sanskaari (cultured) is our responsibility,” Kawre said.

However, another minister in the Chouhan cabinet acknowledged on condition of anonymity that religious events had more crowd-pulling power than political meetings.

“In political meetings, we can’t mobilise more than one lakh people, but in such events we can easily assemble more than five lakh people. Ultimately, our cadres and voters are mobilised through such programmes. It was a huge success in Gujarat — think of it as preparation activities before serious campaigning begins.”

Notably, months ahead of the Gujarat election, numerous BJP leaders had hosted religious extravaganzas, which had received criticism from the opposition Congress as being a “surrogate campaign”.  Now, the party, which swept the Gujarat polls, seems to be following the katha formula in MP too, with some Congress leaders also getting in on the act.

Also Read: After BJP’s Bengal loss, Amit Shah man Vijayvargiya busy with ‘birthdays & bhajans’ in MP

‘Star-studded’ kathas & some controversy

From 9 to 15 December, state urban development minister Bhupendra Singh hosted one of this pre-poll season’s grandest Bhagwat kathas in Sagar district’s Khurai. Presided over by popular preacher Sant Kamal Kishore, the event was attended by lakhs of people and involved extensive preparations overseen by numerous committees for water, food, lighting, security, publicity, and so on.

According to reports, the event was a success, but it was also shadowed by controversy after the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) passed an order to change school timings to facilitate attendance at the programme. The Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission has now reportedly taken cognisance of the matter.

MP urban development minister Bhupendra Singh (in white kurta) at a bhandara after the Bhagwat katha organised by him in Khurai | Twitter/@bhupendrasingho

Another high-profile week-long Bhagwat katha this month was hosted by MP agriculture minister Kamal Patel in his constituency Harda. The attendees included CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. Videos of Vijayvargiya singing a bhajan and Patel dancing vigorously were shared widely in the state.

This event’s vachak was the 1996-born Jaya Kishori. She is one of the youngest spiritual orators to hit the big league in MP. At the end of the event, the CM bestowed blessings on 133 couples who were married under a state scheme for underprivileged women.

Several other such big-ticket events are either ongoing or on the cards for the coming weeks too. K.P. Yadav, the BJP MP from Guna who famously defeated Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, is hosting a Bhagwat katha from 19-25 December, where the vachak is the much-in-demand Pradeep Mishra.

Not to be outdone, Congress leader and former chief minister Kamal Nath has also reportedly invited Mishra to speak at a katha in his constituency Chhindwara.

Sources close to Scindia also told ThePrint that he has sought time from Avdheshanand Giri to organise a Bhagwat katha.

Dharma, sanskriti, politics

Among the many BJP leaders who have kathas lined up is former women and child development minister Archana Chitnis, who lost the last assembly election from Burhanpur.

According to her, extensive preparations are on for a Shiva Mahapuran katha, which is expected to start on 2 February. Pradeep Mishra is expected to be the vachak.

“Several committees have been formed for taking care of the food, transport, finances etc. There are also 100 women who are going on prabhat pheris (morning rounds while singing devotional songs) to villages for people’s participation. This is a mass contact programme,” Chitnis said.

She claimed that there are two primary reasons for organising such events. “The first reason is to help make adarsh (ideal) citizens out of people. As public representatives, we have a responsibility to make society an ideal place where dharma (duty), sanskriti (culture), and religion are part of people’s lives. In these kathas, where lakhs of people participate, they get moral direction,” she said.

The other reason, Chitnis said, is to break down divisions in society. “When people attend a katha, they forget about their caste biases and grievances. It helps create samajik samrasta (social harmony).”

On whether politics has anything to do with it, Chitnis said: “When you do good work, people are ready to support you.”

Another former minister who said he will host a katha in February is former state agriculture minister Gaurishankar Bisen.

According to him, kathas are a way of reaching out to people. “Kathas make people happy and deepen their emotional connect with their local representative. People remember such events more than any public political meeting,” Bisen told ThePrint.

Bhopal-based political analyst Girija Shankar, however, said that the primary benefit of religious programmes was cadre mobilisation ahead of elections.  

“The entire set-up of local workers becomes active, committees form, people have to participate and work for some months,” he explained.

Such events can also help reduce anti-incumbency, he added, even if they don’t have a direct effect on the electoral outcome.

“Ultimately, it is only an extension of baba politics, which Indira Gandhi started in her time by visiting Devraha Baba (for blessings ahead of elections),” he said. “Subsequently, other parties have taken religious politics to the next level.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Why MP minister Narottam Mishra sparks a fire a day — same-sex Karva Chauth to Deepika’s bikini


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