The BJP is undermining the country’s founding principles
FOR GENERATIONS the high-collared waistcoats beloved of Indian politicians have looked much the same. But are they Nehru jackets or, as salesmen now label them, Modi jackets? The ones popularised by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, tended to come in plain charcoal, ivory or, at a daring limit, a rusty maroon. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, inclines instead to vigorous patterns or solid, bright pastels. The particular hue he favours, the one that appears in countless posters touting every official project from e-government to subsidised cooking gas, is orange. The message is unsubtle. Orange is not only a stripe on India’s tricolour flag; it also evokes the saffron robes of Hindu priests, and so symbolises a renaissance of India’s ancient faith. In effect, Mr Modi has rebranded a standard item of apparel in keeping with his Hindu-nationalist political project.
With just months to go before what looks set to be a suspenseful general election, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems keen on stamping its brand on other things. One way is by simply changing the names of places, from streets and stadiums to towns and districts. As might be expected of a politician who actually wears a saffron robe, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu holy man chosen last year by Mr Modi as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is an enthusiast.
Even as a mere MP, the monk-turned-politician liked to redub places in his district, Gorakhpur, with names more to his liking. Urdu Bazaar, a shopping street, became Hindi Bazaar. Ali Nagar morphed into Arya Nagar, Islampur into Ishwarpur. If he had a chance, he said, he would even rename the Taj Mahal, the 17th-century tomb of a Mughal queen that is Uttar Pradesh’s most iconic monument, as Ram Mahal, after the Hindu god.
Mr Adityanath has not gone that far, yet. As chief minister the biggest thing he has renamed is the district of Faizabad, which used to be named after its biggest city. It is now called Ayodhya, after a smaller town that happens to be the legendary birthplace of Lord Ram, and the focus of an ugly dispute since a right-wing mob tore down an old mosque in 1992 in order to “rebuild” a Hindu temple that it claimed had once stood there. Mr Adityanath has also, without consulting its inhabitants, turned the city of Allahabad (population 1.2m) into Prayagraj.
For centuries, it is true, a great Hindu festival has been held at a place on the outskirts of Allahabad called Prayag, in the flood plain where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet. But historians say that Allahabad itself rose around a fort built by the ecumenical emperor Akbar in the 16th century. He called it Ilahabas, meaning “Abode of the God,” in reference to his dream of blending Hinduism and Islam into a syncretic din-i-ilahi or Godly Faith.
Alas, dreams of blending faiths seem very out of fashion now. Inspired by Mr Adityanath, other right-wing politicians are calling for Ahmedabad (population 6m) to become Karnavati, Hyderabad (population 7m) to become Bhagyanagar and even for Delhi, India’s capital, to “revert” to Indraprastha, the name of one of the many cities that have flourished and died near the same site.
The aim is clear: to erase traces of the nearly thousand-year stretch when Muslim dynasties ruled large parts of the country. If there were any doubt, Sambit Patra, official national spokesman for the BJP, put things plainly in an appearance on a talk show. After explaining how Muslims had long oppressed Hindus, he barked at a protesting Muslim politician to shut up, “or else I will rename a mosque after Lord Vishnu.”
The name-changing fervour has provoked pride in some and anger in others, as well as lots of mockery. After Mr Adityanath renamed Mughalsarai, a busy railway station, as Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, one wit asked whether Mughlai chicken, a creamy curry, would also have to be named after the BJP ideologue. But the renaming binge has serious implications. This is not just because it suggests that, in the coming election, the BJP will revert to its tried and tested strategy of stirring resentment among the 80% Hindu majority while blaming opponents for “appeasing” the 14% Muslim minority. In the longer term, the “Sanskritising” of geography threatens to change the very nature of India. Since partition in 1947, its identity as a secular and inclusive country has made an inspiring contrast to the enforced uniformity of all-Muslim Pakistan. With that difference disappearing, the pair look more and more alike.