A year ago, in September 2017, BJP president Amit Shah tore into the Congress for beginning every “political journey” with the urns bearing the ashes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Metaphorically, he was reducing the party to the achievements of its past leaders.
It is undeniable that the Congress had started the process of converting the death of its tallest leaders into a national grieving event. Their ashes were scattered not only in India’s rivers but also sprinkled over the Himalayas and the farms and fields of the country.
Mr Shah, however, may have spoken too soon. Just a year later, it is his party which is trying to apotheosise its own tallest leader of recent times, Atal Behari Vajpayee, by transforming the Hindu rites of death into a political tableau.
The foster family of Vajpayee immersed his ashes at Hardwar on August 20. In Hindu belief, the cremation rites dissolve the material bond between the physical body and the soul and the immersion of the ashes in flowing water is essential to free the soul. Of these waters, the Ganga is considered the holiest. The Shankhsmriti says: “Yadavasthini gangayam tishthanti purushayshya cha; tavad varsh sahasrani Brhamaloke mahiyate (So long as the ashes of a deceased person remain in the Ganga, the soul of that person will continue to enjoy happiness in ‘Brahmalok’, the highest of the joyful worlds, for thousands of years).”
After this final ritual, Vajpayee’s ashes are also being dispersed by the party in 110 rivers and lakes across the country. This should be unexceptionable, given the precedents set by Congress governments.
However, consider the mind-boggling fact that in Uttar Pradesh alone there will be more than 100 ash immersions. In UP, Vajpayee’s ashes will be immersed in the Ganga 20 times; in the Yamuna 16 times; in the Gomati and Ghagra 11 times; in the Tons, Rapti and Sai six times; in the Hindon five times; in the Gandak, Varuna, Ramganga, Kuoni and Kali Nadi three times; in the Garra, Suheli, Rohini, Dhasan, Karban and Ishan twice; besides being immersed in the Ken, Betwa, Karnali, Rihand, Badi Gandak, Chhoti Gandak, Sot, Sengar, Arind, Sharada, Bakulahi, Aril, Kunhar, Vaan Ganga, Sharada, Sone and Kanha rivers.
In all 75 districts of UP, memorial events will be organised to scatter Vajpayee’s ashes in a river. In some districts the ceremony will be repeated up to four times in different rivers. In addition, three memorials will be built for Vajpayee in East, Central and Western UP.
In Madhya Pradesh, the urns containing the ashes will be taken to every village panchayat, condolence meetings will be organised in every district headquarters town, development block and gram panchayat and then immersed in all prominent rivers of the state. Vajpayee Memorials will be constructed in Bhopal and Gwalior, a Rs 5 lakh award instituted in journalism, poetry and administration; the school in Gwalior which Vajpayee attended will be upgraded; a Vajpayee Library set up in all seven smart cities of the state; and naming the state’s Global Skill Park, four Shramodaya Schools and the Vidisha Medical College after Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s ashes will be carried in three processions in Chhattisgarh; its capital Naya Raipur will be named Atal Nagar and Bilaspur University will be renamed after Vajpayee. In Rajasthan the ashes will be immersed in Mahi river in Banswara, Chambal river in Kota and Pushkar Lake in Ajmer.
Why does this feel more than mere ritual facilitation of a departed soul to “Brahmalok”? Because the activities around ash-immersion are so much more intense in the electorally important North Indian states than in the South, where the BJP is non-existent outside Karnataka.
The party is understandably very anxious about UP, which contributes the most number of seats to the Lok Sabha and where its performance was spectacular in 2014. A comparable performance in the coming general election is threatened by the potential alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The ash immersion ceremonies provide the party an opportunity to reconnect with its cadre and voters in UP. The beleaguered party is perhaps especially hopeful of consolidating its support among the brahmins alienated by the Narendra Modi government’s belated pro-dalit moves such as amending the Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes Act and advocating reservations in promotions.
The celebration of the brahmin Vajpayee may help the party in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as well. Re-naming of roads and institutions after another departed brahmin leader of the party, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay (Mughal Sarai railway station was recently renamed after him) and launching Ayushman Bharat, or “Modicare”, on his birthday in September are part of the same strategy.
More important, the party perhaps also hopes to cash in on Vajpayee’s brand equity. Even though Prime Minister Modi seems confident and is not given to self-doubt, the party seems to feel the need for other icons as well.
Politically, the BJP doesn’t have too many recognisable public icons. Unlike other political parties, it can’t drink deep from the well of the Indian freedom struggle. Despite its muscular nationalism today, its ancestral outfits were simply absent from the freedom struggle. The BJP harks back to V.D. Savarkar, but his clemency petition from jail in the Andamans casts a shadow on his credentials. Appropriating Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel does not take it far because he lived and died a Congressman. At best Patel can be used to criticise some of Nehru’s decisions.
In Vajpayee, a democratically-elected and well-liked Prime Minister, the BJP has finally found someone it can be unstintingly proud of. Upadhyay may have been an intellectual giant for the BJP but he does not connect with most Indians. That is not the case with Vajpayee. He can be the Hindutva ideology’s counter to “Chacha Nehru” as an avuncular, poetry-spouting, “cuddly” figure.
Memorialising Vajpayee will help to round the rough edges of the image of the BJP and perhaps make it more acceptable to large sections of the populace. Carrying the urns of his ashes will certainly launch the BJP on a new political journey. Whether another phoenix will rise from his ashes remains to be seen.