(This article appeared in Newsweek International in December 2004).
Having been sidelined by its election loss in May, India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party jumped at the chance to get back in the headlines last week after the arrest of the country's foremost religious leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, a.k.a. the Kanchi seer. BJP leaders denounced the jailing of the 70-year-old holy man—who was charged with arranging the killing of an employee who had worked at the seer's Hindu temple in southern India—and went on a three-day fast to demand the seer's release. BJP-associated far-right Hindu groups alleged the arrest was a "Christian conspiracy against Hinduism" perpetrated by the Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.
The issue was not just religious, but political too. Observers say the BJP is scrambling for an issue to help them recover from the election, and playing the Hindu card has become their best option. BJP hard-liners claimed the party lost because the party strayed from its traditional Hindutva message—an ideology that seeks to transform India into a Hindu state. "They're trying to use the arrest to reintroduce the Hindutva agenda," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of comparative and Indian politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "They have no other agenda. Both [the Congress and the BJP] are doing economic reforms [and] trying to improve ties with Pakistan. Hindutva is the only differentiating factor they have." Last Wednesday BJP president L. K. Advani admitted as much, saying the seer's arrest could help mobilize support for his ailing party. It's worked before. In the early 1990s, the BJP galvanized Hindu support by casting itself as the protector of Hinduism in the midst of nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots. Just a few years later, in 1998, it gained control of the government for the first time.