January 25, 1966, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, northern India

Just a day earlier she was elected the Prime Minister of India and today the relatively young (aged 48) woman leader of the world’s largest democracy had travelled in an Asthi (ashes) special train to the holy confluence of three rivers at the Sangam. It was indeed a spiritual irony of sorts, for the Ganga, (Ganges), the Yamuna and the (mythical) Saraswati, all named after female Hindu Goddesses were welcoming the first woman leader of modern India, who then had neither the power, nor the influence that the supposedly powerful Goddesses possess.

Indira Gandhi, largely seen as a decorative piece of figurehead leadership in the India of 1960’s was naturally nervous. It was widely presumed that the powerful cabal known as the ‘Syndicate’ and led by the Congress party president, K. Kamaraj was the actual power behind the throne. Yet, a vast nation needed to be convinced that Mrs Gandhi was more than just Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, and Prayag was the first stop on the journey towards that goal.

This was the second day after Mauni Amavasya (the holiest day to take a dip at the Sangam, when the largest crowd gathers in the entire Kumbh Mela). Travelling in the special train, Indira Gandhi was carrying the ashes of the popular 2nd Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had passed away just a few days ago in Tashkent. As per Hindu tradition, the ashes were to be immersed at the holy confluence of three rivers. This was a public relations dream scenario, so an open immersion was organized, wherein hundreds of millions of people would participate in bidding adieu to their leader. Also hundreds of millions of Indians would watch their new leader performing a national duty. This was live audience witnessing the great transition in an era when television was almost non-existent in a country like India.

The government had relaxed the inoculation requirements in order to facilitate more people to visit the Sangam and pay their homage to Shastri. In those days of epidemics, the Kumbh village was known for large number of deaths due to various diseases, so a stringent inoculation regime was in place for these events. It must be noted here that the previous Kumbh of 1954 was a huge disaster leading to the death of many thousands. The two important reasons for the 1954 disaster were; 1) Concentrated VIP presence leading to stampedes and 2) Removal of cholera inoculation requirements. Thus it was a dicey situation on the 25th of January 1966, as similar factors that led to the 1954 disaster where playing out on this day.

Just one error of judgement or one mistake by the district administration could have resulted in a disastrous start to Indira Gandhi’s political innings. The Prime Minister had personally overseen the management of that event in order to avoid any untoward incident (giving us glimpses of her iron-fisted approach to administration in the future). Mrs Gandhi was accompanied by stalwarts like S. Radhakrishnan (the second president of India), K. Kamraj (Congress party president) and Zakir Husain (future president of India). Yet, she overshadowed all of them and gave a masterful performance.

There are many Kumbh folklores that tell the story of how Devrah Baba, a legendary Indian Sadhu who was supposed to be aged 350 then (no scientific independent confirmation of these claims), had predicted on that day that Mrs Gandhi would continue to rule India for close to 2 Kumbh cycles (20 odd years). Whatever the veracity of the folktales and legends, the fact of the matter is that lakhs and millions of people went back to their villages and towns from the Kumbh and they carried the stories of Indira Gandhi and her convincing leadership. A vast majority of them also retold the stories of her predicted greatness. Thus, a new leader was born.

The politics of Kumbh in independent India

The Maha Kumbh at Prayag/Allahabad has always had a larger than life impact even on the non-spiritual aspects of India. Such a large congregation of people is inevitably bound to be political in nature. Independent India has already been witness to five cycles of the Purna Kumbh in Prayag (held every 12 years). This is the 6th Kumbh since 1947. Number 12 is an important figure in the Hindu cosmic philosophy, for it signifies completion of a cycle and end of an era. Thus 12 times 12 means the completion of an entire Karmic cycle; which is why a Maha Kumbh is held after the completion of 12 Purna Kumbhs at Prayag (i.e.) after every 144 years. Similarly, the number 6 is considered as half a cycle, which is the mid-way point of the Karmic loop whence a course correction usually occurs.

Many Hindu scholars and pundits believe that the 6th Kumbh at Prayag this year (after indepence) is significant because it denotes the half-way mark in modern India’s tryst with her Karma. What sort of course correction can be expected from India is anybody’s guess, but the possibility of momentous political changes cannot be ruled out. One simple reason for significant socio-economic and political changes is because today India is standing at the cusp of history.

In the past, even otherwise, the Kumbh has had profound influence on the politics of India. The enormous gathering of humans (and Gods) at Prayag has played a historic role in shaping India’s destiny. It is as if the Karma of a nation is bound by a cosmic thread to this 12 year cycle of Kumbh Mela. If the 1954 Kumbh became infamous for the sheer tragedy of so many deaths, it also showcased to the nation the level of incompetence of a socialist regime led by Jawaharlal Nehru. The 1966 Kumbh signified the birth of a strong new leader of India with nerves of steel.

Really, the first major impact of the Kumbh on the polity came about in 1977. Now, when we look back at that era with the lazy luxury of retrospection, it is easier to conclude that probably Mrs Gandhi’s emergency shenanigans had made her immensely unpopular and a regime change was inevitable. The truth is that a vast majority of political pundits of that time did not believe that a motley crowd of wannabe leaders led by a long forgotten octogenarian freedom fighter would be able to defeat the deeply entrenched Congress party and its powerful leader.

Fortunately, for Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and his Janata Party, the 1977 Kumbh at Prayag was being held just weeks before the general elections. Arguably, it was in the Kumbh of ’77 that the JP movement gained electoral traction because of unequivocal support of the Sadhu Samaj (the society of ascetics). The Dharma Sansad (parliament of religion) and a vast majority of Sadhu Sammelan’s (saintly organizations) in the Kumbh of 1977 had declared Indira as a mortal enemy of India. This helped a great deal in spreading the message across India for JP and his followers.

In all probability, the most profound influence the Kumbh has had on Indian polity came about in 1989. It was in 1989 that India was once again looking for a big change after the 5 years of listless governance by Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv. The Kumbh once again provided the perfect platform for political transformation. More importantly, it was also the year when Hindutva was re-born in the “secular” state of India.

The 5 years of Rajiv Gandhi administration was not only corrupt and lacked in governance, but also it was blatantly communal in most of its actions. The infamous Shah Bano case of altering the constitution using his brute parliamentary majority to pander to Muslim fundamentalist voices was naked communalism on the part of Mr Gandhi. Hindu opinion was largely feeling stifled in an increasingly “minority appeasement” atmosphere prevailing in the India of late-80’s. It was in this milieu that the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation was born.

Sir Mark Tully, in his book “No Full Stops in India” explains lucidly how the 1989 Kumbh became the platform from which the Ram temple agitation took off. Prior to the ’89 Kumbh, the Ram temple agitation was largely a fringe activity pursued by certain militant Hindu groups and was geographically limited to Ayodhya and the surrounding regions. As Sir Tully explains, it was once again the legendary Devrah Baba who lent his voice of credibility to the agitation of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP – World Hindu Federation). From that point onwards, there was no looking back, as a “fringe” agitation was transformed into a mass political movement by Lal Krishna Advani’s Rath Yatra that eventually culminated in December 6th 1992.

That 1989 Kumbh was also instrumental in transforming the BJP from a party with just 2 MPs in the Indian parliament to the most significant political force of India after the Congress party. Thus a political pundit should only ignore the influence of Kumbh on Indian polity at his/her own peril.

Kumbh 2013 and the second coming of India

Today, there is once again a strange disquiet on the streets of India. In the last two years there have been numerous agitations against a host of issues ranging from corruption to law and order and rising inflation. To worsen the matters further, the UPA government led by the Congress party has been moving from one political blunder to the other. Listless governance, policy paralysis, humungous corruption scams and the lacklustre performance of the law enforcement agencies have become a huge head ache for the ruling dispensation.

In the midst of all this negativity, the chief minister of western state of Gujarat is increasingly being seen as a fresh breath of air for meaningful governance in India. Opinion polls, television surveys and even various political pundits are now suggesting that Narendra Modi is possibly the most popular leader in India today.

Being popular won’t be enough, not by a long shot, for Indian elections could be a complex mathematical web of many local polls clubbed together to produce a national verdict. Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, probably realize the enormity of the task in front of them and that is why they are taking cautious cognizance of the prevailing mood in the nation. Once again, possibly, the Kumbh might play the biggest role in India’s political change.

The Dharma Sansad and Sadhu Sammelans have once again met at Prayag during the Kumbh of 2013. Here, they have all but endorsed the candidature of Mr Modi as the future leader of India. A decision not so widely covered by the usual suspects in the news media. Such a decision could be momentous, despite of the fact that many journalists dismiss it as simply a Hindu religious activity.

This year, more than a 100 million people are expected to have visited the Maha Kumbh at Prayag from all over India. Imagine a 100 million people going back to their villages, towns and cities and carrying the message of Modi as the future Prime Minister of India. I have been a personal witness, at the Kumbh city over more than 3 occasions, to simple village folks’ interest in the emerging idea of NaMO. The sheer magnitude to which that message of “Modi as India’s future leader” would be amplified is humungous. It is time to take the idea of Kumbh influencing the making of next PM of India seriously.

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.