"Handshake across the Himalayas"
India and China will study new ways to ease tensions along their ill-defined border, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Monday in his first foreign trip since taking office, which comes just weeks after a military stand-off between the Asian giants in the Himalayas. Full Article | Slideshow
Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device. Full Coverage
Local issues trump "religion card" in Indian poll
NASHIK, India |
NASHIK, India (Reuters) - Hindu nationalism, Muslim "vote banks", anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry -- Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of "religion cards" to play.
Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been overshadowed by communal demagoguery.
Some tensions have flared, but debates have turned out to be focused far more on local issues across this huge country. Moreover, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition force, has toned down its religious pitch.
The soft-pedalling of religion highlights how the BJP has struggled to find a campaign appealing both to core supporters as well as more moderate middle class supporters unmoved by communal politics, but who back the party's pro-business stance.
"The BJP is not able to exploit religious identity as much as in the past," said Asghar Ali Engineer, a Muslim scholar and champion of interreligious cooperation who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.
"Local problems have assumed a greater importance," he told Reuters in his office in India's bustling finance and film capital. "The BJP leadership has to exercise caution -- if they're seen as extremists, they will not be voted to power."
In Nashik, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre 180 km (110 miles) northeast of Mumbai, religious leaders said interfaith relations at the grass roots level were better than campaign rhetoric suggested.
"There was no 'Mumbai effect' here," said Pradnyasagar, chairman of the local Buddhist temple, referring to a feared backlash against Muslims. "The politicians make problems before every election," Imam Mohammad Ismael said at his mosque. "After the elections, it's calm again."
The calm is relative. Tensions remain high after recent anti-Christian riots in Orissa, while the killing of 2,500 people -- mostly Muslims -- in Gujarat in 2002 has dogged Hindu nationalist leaders in the state.
Hindus make up 80 percent of India's 1.1 billion population, followed by Muslims at 13 percent, Christians at 2.3 percent, Sikhs at 1.8 percent and Buddhists at 0.8 percent.
But faith competes for voters' attention with caste, class and local loyalties. The Hindu vote is split among two national and several regional parties while Muslims are no longer the "vote bank" they once were for the governing Congress Party.
"The Muslim vote is no more a monolithic object to be had by one party," said political scientist S.A.M. Pasha at Jamia Milia Islamia university. "Muslims now vote for whichever party they think will safeguard their interest in that particular region."
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of Bihar is a BJP ally but believes economic growth now trumps the old caste loyalties. "Development breaks down all the caste barriers," he says.
In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Mayawati, a long shot to become India's next prime minister, heads a party that allies her own Dalit (untouchable) caste with top-drawer Brahmins.
Some Hindu nationalists who have played the religion card have seen it backfire. Varun Gandhi, an estranged member of India's powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was arrested after allegedly threatening to cut off the hands of anyone harming Hindus and comparing a Muslim rival to Osama bin Laden.
The BJP distanced itself from his comments but it was a major embarrassment to the party and its stress on moderate policies.
But while it publicly denounces divisive politics, the BJP remains close to Hindu radical groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena. Communal violence mars some states where it governs.
At least 38 people were killed and scores wounded in Orissa last year in waves of anti-Christian violence. Tens of thousands of Christians fled their homes and India's Supreme Court had to order the state government to assure their security.
This January in Karnataka, Hindu hardliners dubbed "India's Taliban" attacked women in a pub in a self-proclaimed drive to uphold traditional Indian culture against Western influences.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Felix Machado, a former top Vatican official, has met several times with other faith leaders since arriving in Nashik last year.
A picture of him hugging a Hindu swami was prominently displayed in local media, a sign of how many religious leaders were trying to ensure religious tensions were muted in this election year.
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this