Rishikesh: In an ashram near the Ganga in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand, priest-turned-politician Sakshi Maharaj mimes rowing a boat to illustrate what will happen if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ignores Hindu nationalist demands.
“Modi will have to be a boatman: one oar must focus on the economy and the other must concentrate on the Hindu agenda,” says Maharaj, clad in saffron robes and sitting cross-legged on a bed.
He twirls his bejewelled fingers in the air, explaining that otherwise the boat will spin in circles.
The Hindu priest, who has been charged with rioting and inciting
communal violence, is held up by opponents as evidence of hardline religious elements in the ruling BJP whose behaviour is threatening the government’s economic reform agenda.
In recent months, Maharaj has created uproar by describing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, as a patriot and saying Hindu women should give birth to four children to ensure the religion survives. The BJP issued him a notice last month asking him to explain those remarks.
His comments suggest a growing impatience among some BJP lawmakers with the PM for his refusal to champion their cause. Maharaj, for example, wants to make it illegal for Hindus to change religion and seeks the death penalty for slaughtering cows.
At the ashram, elderly disciples bend to kiss the feet of Maharaj, who wears light brown socks with sandals, an orange turban, gold-framed Dolce and Gabbana glasses and a chunky gold-coloured watch.
With a self-proclaimed following of 10 million people, Maharaj, a four-time member of parliament, draws support through a network of dozens of ashrams and colleges.
“I am aware that I am a powerful man,” Maharaj says. “I can make or break the government.”
The winter session of Parliament saw the torpedoing of key foreign investment legislation as a united opposition protested over incidents of communal violence and a campaign by groups affiliated to the BJP to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.
The PM had to use executive orders to drive policy. This month, the government must present the budget and try to enact three emergency decrees in Parliament.
“Modi has a major problem with these extremist elements,” said S Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group in New Delhi. “If he can’t bring them under control, they are going to… sap the energy needed to carry out reforms.”
In a sign that the world is watching, US President Barack Obama warned on his recent visit that India’s success depended on it not splintering along religious lines.
Maharaj is charged by the police with rioting and inciting the mob that tore down the 16-century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. The communal riots that followed killed nearly 2,000 people. He admits being present at the demolition but says he could not stop the crowds.
In December, the PM told lawmakers in a private meeting that they must not cross the “Lakshman Rekha” or forbidden line and avoid any statements that could create unnecessary controversies. “The message is loud and clear: there is no room for any diversion from the economy,” said GVL Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for the BJP.
The PM’s ties with radical Hindus “can be best described as a game of chess,” said Ramchandra Guha, one of India’s leading historians. “Both sides are on board when it comes to establishing the Hindu supremacist agenda, but they want to follow a different strategy to achieve it.”
Maharaj claims most Indians, including the PM, privately share his views, and he will continue promoting Hindu supremacy.
“The only difference is he is refined and maybe we are crass,” Maharaj says of the PM. “We may have to fine-tune the message but the message will remain the same.”