The Seventh Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal, is under siege from “Gai, Ganga aur Danga” (cows, the Ganges River, and inter-communal riots), the electoral strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules federally under hard-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state and where the Taj is located, under hard-right “godman” Yogi Adityanath.
The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO heritage marble mausoleum that attracts tourists and statesmen alike, has lately been denigrated as a “blot on Indian culture” because it was built by a Muslim ruler. The real reason: the coming municipal elections in UP, and a do-or-die State Assembly election in Modi’s home state, Gujarat.
Since 2014, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have continually prioritized each approaching election over thoughtful governance. This is why Baba Yogi (as the UP chief minister Adityanath is called) was selected to head India’s most populous state (at over 220 million it could be one of the world’s largest countries), even though UP is India’s most ungovernable state and he had no prior administrative experience.
After the BJP won a stunning three-fourths majority in the UP assembly in March this year, Modi and Shah pulled Baba Yogi out of his monastery in the state’s easternmost town, Gorakhpur, and installed him to keep the inter-communal pot boiling till the next parliamentary election in 2019. UP is key if Modi is to return to power.
In nearly seven months Baba Yogi has done little governance. Instead of “mukhya mantri” (chief minister), bureaucrats in state capital Lucknow derisively call him “murkh mantri” (foolish minister). Law and order are non-existent: There have been 20 targeted killings since he took over, including that of Rajesh Yadav of the rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a couple of weeks ago near Allahabad University.
UP Chief Minister Baba Yogi is doing the job he was chosen for: keeping the Hindu-Muslim tension simmering.
Adityanath recently bragged that his administration had conducted nearly 433 “encounters”, in which criminals are killed in police shootouts, but are not of the state’s big mafias. Instead, local Congress party workers alleged that the victims have been small mafiosi and small-time contractors who had business rivals in the BJP.
The chief minister has only acted tough against girls. Banaras Hindu University (BHU) students who protested against sexual molestation almost a month back, while local parliamentarian Modi was on a visit, were chased into hostels and brutally caned. He did also act tough against a whistleblower doctor after about 100 babies died over four days at his home-town hospital; there was no oxygen in the hospital.(Health care is that bad in UP.)
Baba Yogi is doing the job he was chosen for: keeping the Hindu-Muslim tension simmering. The November municipal elections are a test, though the Election Commission has not slated by-elections to the seats that he and his deputy K P Maurya vacated, in Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary constituencies. In absence of any development, the time-tested recourse is “Gau, Ganga aur Danga”.
Additionally, Modi has an unexpectedly tough fight in Gujarat. Though it was earlier seen as a cakewalk – as is the 2019 election (to the extent that former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah counseled the opposition to prepare for 2024 instead of 2019) – the twin economic missteps of demonetization of high-currency banknotes in November 2016, which has damaged small traders and agricultural supply chains, and the clumsy implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), have soured the public mood.
Though Modi and Shah are unlikely to lose their home state, their desperation is clear. Thus while Modi has lost his composure by bitterly attacking the ever-cheerful Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, his UP mates are attacking the Taj Mahal.
Baba Yogi began on June 16 by saying the Taj Mahal did not represent Indian culture, and that visiting dignitaries would now be presented presented with holy texts Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, instead of replicas of the monument. In early October, the state Tourism Ministry removed its brochure’s cover page, which featured the Taj Mahal. On October 10, the state cabinet minister for religious affairs and culture, Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary, said the Taj Mahal should be replaced in the brochure by the Gorakhpur monastery (which Baba Yogi heads).
And on Monday, UP legislator Sangeet Som, who posted a fake video on Facebook that helped incite inter-communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, said the Taj Mahal was a blot on Indian culture. (Som erroneously claimed that its builder, Shah Jahan, jailed his father; Shah Jahan was in fact jailed by his son.)
The BJP is unlikely to demolish the Taj Mahal. Even Baba Yogi on Tuesday backed down in the face of criticism and repudiated Som’s statement while defending the Taj Mahal. He does not like being compared to the Taliban who in March 2001 destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
His party’s brand is based, however, on inter-communal disharmony. This is just the beginning of their Taj Mahal story. In the coming months, expect more hate speech about this world-famous monument to love.
Aditya Sinha publishes a weekly column on Asia Times.