After his party’s massive victory in Delhi last month, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj announced that he would organize monthly SundarKand recitations in his constituency. The AAP is not alone. The Communist Party of India (Marxists) (CPI-M) is considering expanding party presence at temples through permanent bookstalls.

Why are these non-BJP parties engaging with Hindu religious practice?

An analysis of Lokniti-CSDS survey data suggests that the ubiquity of Hindu religious practice in the public sphere and the rightward shift of the polity has made this electorally prudent for parties.

A nationally representative survey on religious practices in India carried out by the Lokniti-CSDS team in 2015 shows that everyday religious practice among Hindus isn’t limited to private activities like praying at home or keeping idols and religious books. The survey of 5548 Indians spread across 20 states showed that around one-fourth of (24 percent) Hindu respondents regularly participated in kathas (religious story-telling and talks) and bhajans (religious songs and hymns performed in a group). 30 percent Hindu respondents visited temples regularly and 46 percent visited occasionally, the survey showed.

Do these practices transcend social and economic boundaries among Hindus? The data certainly suggests so, with only minor class-based differences in active religious practice among Hindus. The proportion of respondents who said that they regularly participated in kathas and bhajans was quite similar across class groups. But middle and upper-class respondents were slightly more likely to report visiting temples. While the frequency of participation varied across class groups, the proportion of respondents who reported no participation was fairly similar and minuscule. Educational attainments do not seem to influence religious practice, the data suggests.

Like class, there aren’t sharp inter-caste differences when it comes to participation in kathas and bhajans. The proportion of respondents who regularly participated in these was slightly lower among Dalits. Dalits are much less likely to regularly visit temples compared to other caste groups. In the survey, less than one-fourth (24%) Dalits reported regularly visiting temples as compared to almost one-third of upper castes (33%) and OBCs (31%).

A major but often overlooked dimension of religious practice in India is the reverence for religious leaders or godmen (babas, gurus etc.). Roughly half (51 percent) of the respondents in the Lokniti-CSDS survey said that they had a picture or idol of a godman at home. A third said that they were likely to consult a godman if they, or someone in their immediate family, were in distress. 18 percent respondents answered in the affirmative to both these questions and can be considered as followers of godmen. More than a fourth (28 percent) of respondents said that they had a great deal of trust in godmen from their own religion. Reverence for godmen seems to be higher in rural areas. 20 percent of rural respondents and 13 percent of urban respondents were active followers of godmen, the survey found.

Like other religious practices, godmen’s following transcend class but the lower class had a slightly higher share of followers (22%). In terms of caste too, the patterns are similar to other religious practices. Dalits are slightly less likely to follow godmen actively. Only 15 percent Dalits are active followers of godmen as compared to 20 percent among upper castes.

Apart from these religious practices, public events like processions and religious gatherings remain a key arena for religious practice in India.

The survey data clearly shows that religious practice remains an integral aspect of everyday life in India. The BJP has consistently promoted it and maintained close ties with numerous godmen. Devout Hindu voters continue to form a key segment of the party’s electoral coalition.

Other parties are now learning from the BJP’s playbook and aiming to counter it. Fearful of being labeled as ‘biased’ against Hindus for not demonstrating adequate support for Hindu rituals, they are outdoing each other in embracing such practices.

Increasing political engagement with Hindu practices cutting across party lines may be the new normal.

Sanjay Kumar is professor at CSDS and a political analyst. Pranav Gupta is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, US.


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