With the line between state and religion becoming increasingly blurred, perhaps India ought to take a cue from neighbouring Bhutan, where religious leaders, priests and nuns are not allowed to contest elections or to vote.

Though spiritual leaders command an important position in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan, the fledgling democracy – which held its first democratic elections in 2008 – has taken a conscious decision to keep them out of electoral politics. This has been done to ensure that religion and politics do not mix. The clergy, it is emphasised, must remain above politics.

As a secular country, India should ideally draw a line between state and religion and, some might say, even emulate Bhutan. But the reality is that religion and politics in India are inextricably linked and it is impossible for any political party – the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party – to take the extreme step of barring sadhus from contesting elections

Religious agenda

While Jawaharlal Nehru was clear that religion be kept at arm’s length from the state, political parties of all hues have, over the years, openly courted religious leaders and even fielded them in elections to take advantage of their popularity and mass following.

The religious leaders have reciprocated by endorsing a particular party and even campaigning for it. In fact, many have emerged as key political players, wielding considerable influence on parties in deciding their candidates and policies. Who can forget Chandraswami, an extra-constitutional power centre in the PV Narasimha Rao government and the go-to person for those who sought a cabinet berth or a lucrative government contract?

More recently, yoga guru Ramdev and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, along with a host of sadhus, fanned out across the country in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to garner support for the BJP. They also presented a wishlist of candidates to the BJP, which was duly accepted. For instance, the BJP’s East Delhi MP Mahesh Giri was formerly an international director of the Art of Living Foundation and reportedly Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s nominee. Then again, political leaders routinely drop in at the mutts in Karnataka or deras in Punjab and Haryana at election time, ostensibly to seek the blessings of seers but in reality to get the backing of the dera chiefs for their parties. Here, there is no differentiating between the BJP and the Congress as both parties try to outdo each other in wooing the dera chiefs.

It would be expected that as India matures as a democracy, matters of faith would gradually cease to be factors in electoral politics. Instead, we find that religion has tightened its grip on political parties. The presence of saffron-clad sadhus and sadhvis in Parliament is no longer an unusual sight. Shouts of “Jai Shri Ram” in the Lok Sabha have become a common occurrence.

Of all the political parties, the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal are unapologetic about using religion for electoral purposes. In fact, BJP president Amit Shah has often said in private conversations that the BJP is a Hindu party and not shy of propagating its Hindutva agenda.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath is also head priest of the Gorakhnath mutt. (Credit: PTI)

BJP’s saffron force

It was in keeping with the BJP’s ideological moorings that it did not hesitate to breach the line between religion and state when it appointed Adityanath, head priest of the Gorakhnath mutt, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017. Adityanath continues to head the mutt. Not only is he a religious leader, he is also known for his hate speeches against minorities.

His counterpart in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, gave ministerial ranks to five Hindu religious leaders in April and appointed them to a committee to create awareness about afforestation and water conservation along the Narmada river. The BJP chief minister took this step after one of the five religious leaders, Namdeo Das Tyagi – better known as “Computer Baba” – threatened to launch an agitation against the state government for overlooking illegal mining along the Narmada. With Assembly elections due on November 28, seers and mahants in the state have become more demanding and are lining up for tickets – even threatening to launch their own parties if they are not accommodated. They have clearly become ambitious after Adityanath’s appointment as chief minister.

Then there is Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a junior minister in the Modi government, who had declared at a public rally in 2014, “You must decide whether the government in Delhi will be run by Ramzade [those born of Ram] or haramzade [the illegitimately born].”

Similarly, Uma Bharti, who was at the forefront of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement when Hindutva mobs demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, is a minister in the current government.

Indeed, the list of sadhus fielded by the BJP in elections is a long one – from Swami Avaidyanath and Sakshi Maharaj to Satpal Maharaj.

It would appear that little has changed since the mid-1960s, when Hindu religious leaders took to the streets and demonstrated outside Parliament to demand a ban on cow slaughter. On November 4 and November 5, a convention of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti – an umbrella organisation of more than 3,000 sadhus from 127 sects – was held in Delhi to demand the enactment of a law for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The gathering of seers also announced that it would be holding 500 public meetings across the country for this cause.

A two-day convention of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti in Delhi demanded a law for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. (Credit: PTI)

Coincidentally, the meeting also sought a vote for the BJP as it believes in “Ganga, Geeta, Gayatri, Govind and Gau [cow]”. The organisers maintained that the current government would fulfil their expectations, leaving no one in doubt that the meeting and the Samiti’s public campaign has been orchestrated by the BJP to ensure the Ram temple, cow protection and other religious matters dominate political discourse in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Kumbh Mela in January-March 2019, planned on a grand scale with an eye on the general elections, will present an ideal opportunity and venue for the sadhus and the BJP to inject a fresh dose of religious fervour in the poll campaign.

With elections in five states scheduled this November-December and the Lok Sabha polls soon after, rhetoric on the Ram temple is bound to get shriller, the debate on religion more passionate and minority-bashing more strident. Maybe it is time to follow Bhutan’s example of keeping religion out of politics.