//On Religious Leaders in Indian Politics

On Religious Leaders in Indian Politics

The Times of India,ARATI R JERATH

29 oct 2011

The year was 1952 and independent India’s first general elections were in full swing. Only one person dared to challenge the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the latter’s family bastion of Phulpur in UP’s Allahabad district. His name was Swami Prabhudutt Brahmachari. He contested as an independent supported by ultra conservative Hindu groups like Swami Karpatri’s Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad and the All India Hindu Mahasabha. They had joined hands on one common platform: all were virulently opposed to Nehru’s Hindu Code Bill which sought to make sweeping reforms in inheritance, property and marriage laws for Hindus.

It was an amazing campaign, recorded in great detail by the January 28, 1952 issue of Time magazine. Describing the swami as one “who wears a luxuriant grey beard, orange-and-red-rimmed spectacles, a saffron robe and a long white loincloth” , the article states, “Holy Man Brahmachari toured Nehru’s constituency in a 1931 Dodge sedan accompanied by a troupe of Hindu singers. To the chanting of Hindu psalms, he danced on the platform, rhythmically tapping a pair of small brass cymbals. A disciple read from a pamphlet he had written.” The article quotes from one such pamphlet: “The Hindu Code Bill will ruin religion, confuse castes, split every family, pit brothers against sisters and profit only lawyers.”

Needless to say, Nehru trounced Prabhudutt Brahmachari to win by a huge margin. The swami , who had taken a vow of silence and therefore resorted to writing what he wanted to say, justified his decision to jump into the electoral fray. “If today I participate in an election, it’s only because my innermost voice bids me to do so,” he wrote with his Sheaffer fountain pen.

Long before Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar burst on the scene, several swamis, gurus and sants had flirted with politics and bit the dust. Prabhudutt Brahmachari faded away after his ignominious defeat while Swami Kerpatri’s RRP merged itself into the BJP’s previous avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, having failed to make a mark in successive polls.

After them came Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari who inveigled his way into Indira Gandhi’s inner circle through his mastery over yoga and became a powerful figure in her time. Although he stayed away from formal politics, he exercised tremendous influence over government postings and cabinet appointments and was often commandeered by Indira Gandhi for backroom political dealings. A Congress oldtimer recalls that senior party leaders and ministerial aspirants used to line up at his residence seeking favours or simply an audience. His proximity to power helped him accumulate a vast collection of ashrams, riches and even a gun factory in Jammu. His decline began with Indira Gandhi’s defeat after the Emergency and the last years of his life went in fighting dozens of criminal cases and trying to fend off government acquisition of his properties. He was killed when his private plane crashed while he was flying to one of his ashrams.

The next decade saw the rise of Chandraswami who boasted among his followers two prime ministers, P V Narasimha Rao and Chandrashekhar. Like Dhirendra Brahmachari, Chandraswami did not join politics formally but was a power to reckon with during Rao’s tenure as PM. He meddled in Congress politics as Rao’s interlocutor and in affairs of state as a close associate of controversial international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. He too built up a massive empire using his political clout but fell hard with Rao’s exit from government. For years, he was neck-deep in criminal and tax cases and even did a stint in Tihar jail.

It was the BJP which, under the influence of the RSS at the height of the Ram mandir movement, encouraged religious leaders to participate in active politics and sent 10 of them to the Lok Sabha in the 1991 elections. Prominent among them were Mahant Avaidyanath, Swami Chinmayanand , Swami Vishvanath Shastri and Sadhvi Uma Bharati. Of them, Avaidyanath is the only one who remains relevant because of the Gorakhpur Mutt’s traditional association with politics. He has passed on his political mantle to son Adityanath, currently the BJP MP from Gorakhpur. The rest were sidelined ruthlessly once the BJP got off the mandir tiger and turned its attention to bread-and-butter issues. Others who dabbled in politics through the RSS-BJP were not so lucky. Asaram Bapu, who once campaigned for the party in Gujarat, is facing trial for attempted murder. The shankaracharya of the Kanchi Peeth, Jayendra Saraswathi, believed to have wielded influence with AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa through a section of the RSS, was arrested on a murder conspiracy charge.

TNN Oct 23, 2011, 05.30AM IST