Mumbai: You can’t ask for a better brand ambassador than God.
And so starting next month, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) is enlisting Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, Morari Bapu and Asaram Bapu to create an alliance marrying political, religious and environmental causes.
The strategy taps into the godmen’s oft larger-than-life presence among followers to bolster support for the VHP’s main political ally—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—in the next general election.
While the marriage of religion and politics is nothing new, analysts say there appears to be an effort to reach out to more moderate Hindus, who won’t be swayed on religious issues, such as where Ram was born, but might be on others, such as cleaning the Ganges.
Ramdev, for example, has repeatedly said his movement is not a religious one, but focuses on leading a more peaceful and balanced life through yoga and meditation.
Beginning in September, he will help launch the first part of a nationwide campaign to save the Ganges.
“We will have constructive agitations. Along the river, people will come together to pray, meditate and do pranayam,” said Surendra Tijarawala, spokesman for Ramdev, the convener of the Ganga Raksha Manch. “The river has been abused for long enough. No more. This river is a symbol of the Hindu civilization that was nurtured by its holy waters. It is time we give back what we are taking from it.”
The alliance is an intentional about-face from another forged in 1990 by the VHP with the support of pontiffs such as the Shankaracharyas, or the heads of monasteries, and sadhus.
That year, when BJP leader L.K. Advani launched a 6,000km “Ram Janmabhoomi” campaign to save the birthplace of the Hindu king, none of those religious leaders had followings outside a group of traditional followers, unlike the current alliance.
And the pitch of that campaign to save Ram’s birthplace at the expense of the Babri Mosque—and the bloodshed that followed—scared away moderate Hindus and soured the party’s image.
This time, observers say, the case will be different as the four gurus involved have historically positioned themselves more as humanitarians than religious leaders.
It is expected they can together reach millions of mostly moderate followers in India’s 600,000 villages and the disapora in more than 160 countries with a joint message to save the river, save Adam’s Bridge (which some Hindus call Ram Sethu, the bridge built by Ram to Sri Lanka) from dredging, and to preserve temples from both ruin and government interference.
Already, in Haridwar, Hinduism’s political organizations have begun using these gurus to speak on these issues with anecdotal success. Whether their embrace of politics will potentially alienate those who just turn to them for a daily message of renewal, or a more flexible yoga pose could not be ascertained.
Morari Bapu is a popular kathakaar (preacher), known for giving sermons that last as long as nine days. Asaram Bapu is a spiritual guru based in Ahmedabad; police are investigating the deaths of two boys last week at his ashram. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation aims torelieve stress at an individual level, and to relieve disease and violence at a societal level.
Through a spokesman, the founder said environmental degradation and global warming is a major crisis facing the world today, and that his role in the Ganga Raksha Manch is part of a multi-pronged approach the group is taking.
Shital Parikh, a Mumbai-based homemaker, is an ardent follower, but says she has never been political. Still, she says she’s happy to join the causes mentioned. “First is that we need to conserve our natural resources as a country. Second is that this is to save our culture. Guruji is taking leadership to conserve and save. Of course, I will participate in any way he wants me to,” she said.
Expecting others to mirror her trust and devotion, organizers remain hopeful their strategy will work. “No government can face such pressure. It is unlike anything we have ever done before,” said Vyankatesh Abdeo, general secretary at the VHP. “We are handing over leadership to the spiritual leaders of this country and trust that they will advise their followers well.”
The second part of the campaign begins on the day after Dussehra, when Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil mythologically exemplified by the day Ram vanquished Ravana.
“That day we will begin rath (chariot) yatras across the country. The first chariot will carry a Ganga-kalash, a pot containing Ganges water, an image of the Ram Sethu and an image of the proposed temple at Ayodhya,” said Abdeo. “The sadhus will address rallies along the way telling people to do vote for the party that can deliver.”
Observers say this new strategy of involving gurus with mass appeal, if executed well, could help the BJP.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst and Mint columnist, notes that the makings of an alliance were already visible when Ramdev appeared at the book launch of Advani’s autobiography, My Country My Life, earlier this year.
Ramdev told the crowd that India needs a prime minister like Advani, according to Rao.
“It all depends on how they do it. VHP and RSS are considered the Hindu hotheads. But these gurus have a lot of mass goodwill behind them. So, if they keep the pitch reasonable, this might work,” Rao said.
Efforts are being made to keep it reasonable. At Ramdev’s ashram, Tijarawala said the main focus remains declaring the Ganges a national heritage and saving the Ram Sethu, the controversial site of a project to dredge the walkway between India and Sri Lanka to shorten shipping routes.
Tijarawala said Ramdev was less committed to the building of a Ram temple, calling that issue “a political game of votes”. He added: “This country is a country of many religions. That is its strength. So, the solution to the Ramjanmabhoomi issue will have to be based in mutual understanding, not force.”