Election-eve patriotism

Print edition : October 08, 2004

The Uma Bharati-led Tiranga Yatra's six-day-long journey through Maharashtra raising emotive issues fails to strike a chord among the people despite the flaunting of the tricolour.

in Vidarbha

Uma Bharati garlanding the statue of freedom fighter Kittoor Rani Chennamma before she started the Tiranga Yatra.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

DESPITE affirmations to the contrary, the Uma Bharati-led Hubli to Jallianwalla Bagh Tiranga Yatra evidently formed the vanguard of the Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign for the Assembly elections in Maharashtra. During her six-day tour of the State, Uma Bharati repeatedly said that the yatra was meant only to express her personal beliefs that one should have pride in one's country and its flag and that "all other outcomes of the yatra are God's gift". Importantly, the Idgah controversy itself was not about disrespect to the national flag, but about Uma Bharati and others disobeying prohibitory orders issued by the Hubili police. That was the legal reason for her arrest. At no point was the right to raise the flag questioned. `Disrespect to the flag' is a convenient pre-election political ploy.

However, the yatra itself - the way it was organised and the issues it raised - left no room for doubt regarding the BJP's intentions. The bus used for the yatra was decorated with portraits of an array of important figures, past and present: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Bhagat Singh, V.D. Savarkar, Chandrashekar Azad, L.K. Advani, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Ashfaqullah Khan, Shivaji, the Rani of Jhansi and Kittur Rani Chennamma, a freedom fighter. Interestingly, the BJP preferred to refer to the Idgah Maidan in Hubli as the Chennamma Maidan. This has sparked a controversy with allegations that the BJP's insistence on calling it Chennamma Maidan was meant to provoke another conflict.

If, as Uma Bharati said on numerous public occasions, the yatra was meant to "satisfy personal beliefs and feelings about the tricolour" why was it an official yatra of the BJP? If it were a yatra to defend her right to raise the tricolour then why did her public speeches invariably turn to issues such as water scarcity, power shortages and unemployment, all election campaign points that the Democratic Front government in Maharashtra might find difficult to counter. There were exhortations at every public meeting to "cast your vote to topple the Congress and bring back the BJP". Equally noteworthy was the fact that the Tiranga Yatra in the State was organised by State BJP president Gopinath Munde, Legislative Council leader Nitin Gadkari and party leader Eknath Kadse, who together formed the core of the campaign committee for the Lok Sabha elections.

At a public meeting in Akola, Uma Bharati reaffirmed her commitment to build the Ram mandir at Ayodhya. Significantly, Akola has a history of communal strife and a minor communal riot had occurred a few days before Uma Bharati's arrival. The Muslim voter was directly addressed, first by a warning not to be fooled by the "vote bank politics" of the Congress and then to be reminded about the old points of dissent between the community and Hindu fundamentalist parties - Family planning, education levels and the singing of Vande Mataram. Also raised were issues relating to Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origins". Uma Bharati said: "Why do we have this foreigner craze? Marxism may have been a new idea for Europe but our philosophers have been speaking of the same ideals from as far back as the 12th century. Why not follow them instead of Marx? This foreigner craze has resulted in us being ruled by the Italian Mafia mind. And the minds that thought of making Sonia the head of the party are also minds that are leftovers of foreign thinking." Karnataka BJP president H.N. Ananth Kumar, who was travelling with the yatra, defended its aims: "Any campaign is the bouquet of many issues. This is not an election campaign. It is a national yatra to show how the Congress is degrading the flag. It is a yatra for national detoxification of secularism."

The Tiranga Yatra was a manoeuvre to position Uma Bharati, the BJP, the saffron flag and the tricolour on the same platform. Projected as a simple emotional device meant to touch people's hearts it was actually a political platform to harp on the party's pet issues. But, apparently, the intended message of the yatra did not quite get across to the masses. While Uma Bharati alleged that the Congress had an "unethical advantage" since its party flag bore a striking resemblance to the tricolour, there is no doubt that one of the expected outcomes of the yatra was to blur the distinction between the tricolour and the saffron flag. Numerous attempts were made to link the tricolour to the Hindu fundamentalist parties. At a public meeting in Risod in Vidarbha, a local BJP leader said: Hindutva ka josh rashtra ka tiranga, Dono ko saath leke bhagwa vapas aayega (the tricolour expresses the strength of Hindutva. If the two march together it will ensure the return of the saffron flag). In the Varvat Bakaal village in Buldhana district, Uma Bharati advised the people to keep the saffron flag, strength of spirit and the tricolour as their priorities. Her message was not lost on a small section. At a roadside reception in Washim, a small crowd presented Uma Bharati with a five-foot high brass trishul on which a saffron ribbon bound together two crossed tricolours.

However, indications are that the response of most of the people who attended her public meetings ranged from mild confusion to anger at being told that the national flag had to be respected. At a public meeting in Risod, a policeman on duty said he and his colleagues had been discussing the yatra and concluded that the BJP was trying to appropriate the flag. He asked: "What else can we think? We cannot figure out what Umaji is trying to prove with this yatra. Is she saying we don't respect the flag? Every school going child salutes the flag."

In any event, Maharashtra formed a focal point of Uma Bharati's yatra. On her way to Hubli to surrender before a court that issued a non-bailable warrant against her in the Idgah maidan case, she travelled through the State by train addressing people on station platforms at strategic places such as Pune, Sangli, Miraj and Daund in western Maharashtra, a Nationalist Congress Party stronghold. On her return, she undertook the Tiranga Yatra. Thus, she effectively covered the crucial areas of western Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha. "Unprecedented response" was how Ananth Kumar described the reaction of the people. However, the attendance was paltry when compared, for example, to her earlier visit to Akola 15 years ago. In that sense, the public's response was unprecedented, to the disappointment of the BJP.

One reason for the poor turn out is the failure of a faction-ridden State BJP to rally unitedly behind the yatra. At her point of entry into Maharashtra Uma Bharati was met only by Gopinath Munde who remained with her while she travelled in Marathwada. Then she was accompanied by Nitin Gadkari, who has a strong support base in Vidarbha, and later by Eknath Khadse. At no point was former Union Minister and senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan publicly involved with the yatra. This is curious, considering his well-acknowledged organisational abilities and his place in the party power structure. The State BJP attributed the absence of many senior functionaries in Uma Bharati's entourage to their preoccupation with the Assembly elections. The explanation was unconvincing. The real reason, according to some, was that it was too early to start the election campaign and the party leaders were wary of overstepping the Election Commission by bringing the national flag into the campaign.

Then why undertake the yatra when there is no consensus in the party on the matter, especially in Maharashtra? The answer seems to lie partially in the fact that Uma Bharati wishes to redeem herself with the party's top leadership and regain her position in Madhya Pradesh. When queried about this, she declined to reply saying: "I will not answer anything pertaining to me, mine, myself. I am not important."

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