Congress party woos Hindu voters with cow protection vow

Some women in a village near Bhopal, India, showing their voting slips as they stand in a queue waiting to cast their votes in the Madhya Pradesh state assembly elections, which started on Wednesday. The state is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some women in a village near Bhopal, India, showing their voting slips as they stand in a queue waiting to cast their votes in the Madhya Pradesh state assembly elections, which started on Wednesday. The state is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. In its campaign, the opposition Congress has reached out to Hindus, who form 91 per cent of the state's 73 million population.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Opinion polls put BJP, Congress in close fight in Madhya Pradesh

The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh went to the polls on Wednesday, as part of several state-level elections that will set the tone for the general elections next year.

Voting took place for 230 seats of the Madhya Pradesh assembly.

Opinion polls showed that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress were in a close fight in the state.

The opposition has reached out to Hindu voters by treading a path that has long been the focus of the BJP.

Congress, a centre-left party with a base among minority communities, has promised to build cowsheds in thousands of villages, develop a path tracing the mythical route taken by Lord Rama during his years of exile, and take care of temples, among other things.

In the state, Hindus form 91 per cent of the 73 million population and Muslims about 6 per cent.

The opposition party's outreach to Hindus has upset the BJP, which has brought the issue of protecting cows to the forefront since it came to federal power nearly five years ago.

SAME RHETORIC

Cow and temple politics are rhetoric and all parties are now having the same rhetoric.

DR N. BHASKARA RAO, of the Centre for Media Studies.

Most Hindus revere the cow and do not eat beef, but consume its milk and milk products.

Congress party national spokesman Tom Vadakkan said: "It is not a question of wooing (the Hindus). We are a party which has carried everybody forward. They (BJP) are trying to project us as anti-Hindu, which is not correct. Sometimes, we have to make it known that our position is not anti-Hindu."

Voting also took place on Wednesday in the north-eastern state of Mizoram for 40 assembly seats.

The elections in Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, from Nov 12 to Dec 7, are seen by many as the "semi-finals" ahead of the general elections.

The election results from these states, which will be known on Dec 11, will set the tone for the general elections due by May next year.

A win for the Congress party, particularly in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, would be a boost of confidence for the key opposition party and strengthen its position for alliance building.

Conversely, a win by the BJP would be a boost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his re-election bid.

Madhya Pradesh is part of the Hindi language belt in India's heartland. It has been headed by BJP's Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has been the chief minister for the last three terms and is running for a fourth term.

Apart from reaching out to Hindus, the Congress party, led by former minister Kamal Nath and Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia in the state, has centred its campaign on criticising the BJP's claims of economic development and highlighting that farmers are in distress due to low prices for their produce and high debt.

The Congress party's promises on cow protection, in particular, have raised the hackles of the BJP.

Prime Minister Modi, while campaigning in the state last week, criticised the Congress for appropriating the issue of cow protection, saying the party was misguiding people.

BJP spokesman in Madhya Pradesh, Mr Anil Saumitra, said that cow protection would remain a key BJP issue.

"They won't get any benefits because this is the BJP's agenda and they are trying to hijack it. People know this," he said.

Still, the Congress' outreach to a wider section of Hindu voters and going beyond its traditional voter base of religious minorities are not restricted to Madhya Pradesh.

During the Gujarat elections early this year, Congress president Rahul Gandhi toured temples in the state, and while the party lost in the polls, it did much better than expected.

The outreach has been called Congress' soft Hindutva, a predominant form of Hindu nationalism.

Political analysts said that while Congress wanted to score a point with its outreach to core Hindu voters, it was anti-incumbency that was a bigger factor in the elections in Madhya Pradesh.

"The Congress wanted to score a point over Shivraj Singh Chouhan with cow protection. And creating a path for Lord Rama was a BJP idea but they hadn't done anything about it. So the Congress wanted to capitalise on it," said Madhya Pradesh-based journalist Rakesh Dixit.

But he added that what could help the Congress was anti-incumbency in the state.

"Anti-incumbency will be a key factor. There is pent-up anger of people against the government which is going to help the Congress," he said.

Dr N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies said: "Cow and temple politics are rhetoric and all parties are now having the same rhetoric."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2018, with the headline 'Congress party woos Hindu voters with cow protection vow'. Print Edition | Subscribe