Notwithstanding his oft-repeated assertions about putting Uttar Pradesh on the development path and turning a new leaf, chief minister Yogi Adityanath has not left any stone unturned to push his hardcore Hindutva agenda.
Over the past seven months since he rode to power, the saffron-clad inimitable BJP leader has been coming up with subtle ways of keeping the Hindutva flame alive.
Having created much hype with volatile issues like "love jihad", "ghar wapsi", "cow slaughter", with which he skillfully served his political purpose of polarising Hindus, Yogi has now devised yet another way to keep Hindutva on the centre stage of politics. At a time when the state is going to civic elections, he has come up with "teerth sthal (pilgrimage centre)" politics.
Yes, it came to the fore with Vrindavan and Barsana towns in Mathura district being declared as official "teerth sthals".
Significantly, this is a special status that no other town in Uttar Pradesh has. According to UP’s principal secretary (tourism), Avnish Awasthi, “the only other city to have been accorded that status was "Haridwar in undivided UP (now in Uttarakhand)".
Image: PTI photo
He said, “A teerth sthal entails ban on liquor and meat shops and special emphasis on promotion of religious and cultural tourism. Therefore, that would necessitate suitable amendments in the Excise Act as well as certain food laws.”
Asked what would happen to people whose livelihood depends on the business of liquor, meat and other non-vegetarian food, he said, “The law provides for their relocation for which they will have to be suitably compensated.”
Interestingly, none of the three key Hindu pilgrimage centres - Ayodhya, Varanasi or Mathura - were declared as "teerth sthals" in all the decades. Then what was the hurry in picking up the relatively less important and much smaller towns like Barsana and Vrindavan?
Visibly, the only hurry in doing so could be the forthcoming civic body polls, which under the prevailing circumstances, were seen as some kind of a semi-final to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. While liquor shops were already non-existent in the two towns, the issue of imminent relocation of meat and non-vegetarian food shops is bound to rake up Hindu-Muslim issues.
The chief minister is being repeatedly questioned on fulfilment of promises he made at the commencement of his innings - particularly on issues like making UP roads “gaddha-mukt (pothole free)", corruption- and crime-free.
Under these circumstances, perhaps it became politically expedient for him to revert to his favourite old agenda of "Hindutva". However, instead of his usual aggressive Hindutva, he turned it to "soft Hindutva".
Sure enough, the declaration of "teerth sthals" does ring a bell in the minds of an already polarised audience. It does prompt many to think that no other government cared to give any place the status of a "teerth sthal" in all these years. It also lends hope that many other popular pilgrimage centres of Hindus would also get the same “privileged” status in times to come.
However, what remains a billion dollar question is whether these towns will actually witness any meaningful development in the bargain. After all, even without being officially declared as pilgrimage centres, cities like Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura have always received fairly high attention with successive governments. Funds have flowed generously in the name of improvement on all counts.
However, the fact remains that these three cities are among the filthiest ones in the state. Poor sanitation standards, atrocious civic amenities and sub-standard health facilities have plagued these places for years.
The conditions prevailing in Vrindavan and Barsana are no better. One really wonders, how can things suddenly change there.
The only visible change is the lip service. And taking the lead was state power minister Shrikant Sharma, the local MLA from Mathura, who was making it a point to loudly beat his trumpet about getting Vrindavan and Barsana the official "teerth sthal" status.
Now, whether these towns get anything beyond the nomenclature, is immaterial. The official position is expected to serve the limited objective of building a hype in the name of the present government’s concern about Hindu pilgrimage centres.
And how much will that help turn the tables in favour of the ruling party when the state goes to civil polls next month, would be interesting to watch, as always.