That godmen and godwomen, whether labelled 'gurus' or 'pitajis' or 'matajis', have a role to play in promoting candidates and parties in their constituencies is taken for granted. MLAs and MPs may come and go every handful of years, but the long-robed, gold-chain flaunting, whiskered men often are the ones that wield the real power. Remember Chandraswami and Indira Gandhi?
Last week, the entire nation saw the violence of the Dera Sacha Sauda members on television. One wonders, what qualities does Gurmeet Ram Rahim Insaan have that make people ready to die for him? Ashrams (I use this word loosely) give their inmates food and shelter either free or at affordable rates. In exchange, one would have to do some kind of 'sewa' either for the guru/godman or those close to him. Religious communes are great for networking and provide a support system. But when someone is a proven criminal, what makes people still continue to worship him? It is not the dal and roti (which the government should have provided); he has given them respect and a sense of belonging.
Whilst following cults (ISIS!) is a phenomenon the world over, in India it is the norm. I can think of hardly anyone I know who doesn't have a small photo of Sai Baba/Mother Teresa/Meher Baba or an equivalent either in a locket or a frame by the bedside or in a wallet.
The names I have mentioned are established 'good' persons, or so the literature on them leads one to believe; any bus stand in the country will show you others (Radhe Maa, Baba Ramdev) mostly local, dubious ones.
Would those who keep the likenesses of the 'saints' close to their hearts vote for them to become members of Parliament? Being a conduit to Heaven is not the same as providing pani-bijli-sadak here and now. But if the photo owner were to be told by their swami(ni) to vote for someone, would they obey? Yes.
One interesting thing about the Ram Rahim fellow is that a) his support had not helped BJP in Punjab. Even two of the three Congress candidates who sought his support in the Punjab elections lost despite their party winning the election and b) the government was serious about putting him behind bars. Things are changing.
India is changing rapidly, socially and economically. Because no one knows what's going to happen next, the need to rely on a higher power seems to have increased. In other countries, troubled individuals turn to alcohol, drugs or psychiatrists. In India, we go to godmen, irrespective of the religion we belong to.
Whether the politician is the first to turn to a godman for help in getting votes or the latter 'butters up' the former for satisfying his greed is anyone's guess. The nexus is strong and opaque.
Exploiting weaknesses has become an industry in politics and religion. Politicians (unproven) use godmen to influence voters and in return allow them (proven) to run their ashrams like little states, with stashes of weapons inside and trained 'soldiers' to use them. Yet, Asaram Bapu and Rampal did not get away with their crimes.
In 2016, while visiting Sri-Sri's ashram near Bengaluru, I was 'treated' to a video of the World Culture Festival. Some strangers sitting by my side kept uttering 'mind-blowing, yaar', 'amazing', 'how did they do it', 'so many people' etc. I mentioned in a monotone that without the backing of the government, without political will, such a huge event could not have taken place. "Volunteers did everything," my host assured me. Who, I asked, paid for the lights, electricity, rugs, platforms, stage, fencing, the bottled-water that was visible, and more?
Never mind what the Green Tribunal said about ecological damage; five lakh footfalls on any ground would injure the surroundings. Now, why would the government do anyone such a big favour without a quid pro quo?
Perhaps the answer lies here: in 2014, the AICC legal department secretary K.C. Mittal had requested the Election Commission to monitor the activities, relating to the election campaign at that time, of Sri Sri's NGO (as well as other similar organisations) which, according to Mittal's allegation, were 'conducting political activities' for the BJP 'without being registered as a political party'.
The aam aadmi has begun to separate religion from politics. In Goa, recently, a church magazine carried an article that implored voters not to vote for 'a candidate who agreed with fascism', Manohar Parrikar. But the Bharatiya Janata Party still won. The Vatican has a hold over Christian (RC) dominated countries, but not in India.
Fatwas from maulvis do not work any longer. The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, urged Muslims to vote for Mayawati's BSP in UP. He was disregarded. At Amroha, hundreds of Muslim men cheered Asaduddin Owaisi, Hyderabad Lok Sabha MP and chief of AIMIM who blasted the religious leaders who issued oral fatwas to guide Muslim voter preferences. He also spoke against various political parties.
Wooing voters is now ruled by common sense and shrewd discretion. I believe religion will slowly get detached from it.