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Issue No.: 574 | April 2015

Three Emerging Religious Icons for Maharashtra Politics

Sharu Rangnekar
Use of religious icons for political campaigns is not unusual in India. The Ram Mandir campaign that led to the first BJP government in 1996 is a recent example.

Use of religious icons for political campaigns is not unusual in India. The Ram Mandir campaign that led to the first BJP government in 1996 is a recent example. In the near future three special icons are like to play a political role. There are really all-India icons – but their special influence in Maharashtra is going to make them special for Maharashtra campaigns.  

They are:


Panduranga: Panduranga has been an icon with the Warkari sect of Hindus in Maharashtra. The bi-annual processions on foot (called dindi) have become important events and have been played up by the electronic media. This has led to increasing popularity of Panduranga and Warkari dindis occupying the TV channels for several days every year.

For many years this was not considered an important source of political charisma till the anti-superstition law came up in the Maharashtra Assembly. Several issues were covered under the "blind faith” like astrology, Vastushastra, Reiki, etc. The Warkaris also had their superstitions over years strengthened by the various miracles attributed various god-men of the Warkaris. These god-men were very powerful and the late Dr. Narendra Dabholkar had to accept many compromises to get the law on superstitions through. During this period it was realised by the politicians that Warkaris and Panduranga procession to Pandharpur can become focus of political charisma.

Ganapati: Ganapati is a very popular god and has been mentioned in various scriptures for his powers. However, it was used in Maharashtra by Lokmanya Tilak for creating an institution called "Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav” (Public Ganesh Festival). This was used by him to create a platform for political communication which was difficult with Hindu masses. The Muslims could meet on Friday afternoons and Christians could meet on Sunday but Hindus had no such system of regular periodical assembly. So he introduced the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav and used this opportunity to convey his political messages. After Independence, this phenomenon got into oblivion but over time, in view of the general enthusiasm of Indian public for festivals, this has become a public festival to parallel with Eid and X-mas. The festival required installation of Ganesh idol and now these idols are multiplying exponentially every year and the festival has become wide-spread with increasing Police bandobast problems.

Saibaba:  Saibaba was born in the 18th century and died in 1918. Initially, he was known in a very small territory around Shirdi near Yewale which was a market place. I happened to visit Yewale in 1942 and found that Saibaba’s silver jubilee death anniversary preparations were being made. It was a relatively a modest celebration. He had a very peculiar attribute – he did not utter many words in his life time. In fact nobody knew where he came from and what his religion was. He looked Muslim but is worshiped by both Hindu and Muslims and that became his basic charisma. Over a period the Saibaba charisma expanded. The Satya Saibaba, claiming to be reincarnation of Saibaba, coming from Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, increased the attraction and at one time charisma of Saibaba and Satya Saibaba were in competition. Satya Saibaba gave an international flavour to the phenomenon because Satya Saibaba disciples came from various western countries.

In 2011 Satya Saibaba died and his charisma has been progressively declining. But the charisma of Saibaba is increasing and now that he is thought of as a god. Not only are his statues installed in homes, but even his temples are built. Some disciples of Hindu religion are opposed to these Saibaba temples and recently there has been a controversy of Shankaracharya vs. Saibaba. This has led to further increase in Saibaba’s charisma. Saibaba himself has written very little (he was probably illiterate) and has spoken only a few words. This has given his disciples an opportunity to create Saibaba messages.

Further Developments: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very media savvy and is likely to use these charismatic personalities. He has already hi-jacked the Congress leaders like Gandhiji, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhashchandra Bose to be a part of his arsenal. Particularly in Maharashtra three icons described are likely to be used by Modi and his followers to make the future elections more colourful.

 MR. SHARU S. RANGNEKAR is a well-known Management Consultant. 





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