Revered in India for millennia, ruling the roads and traffic, killed on railway tracks with alarming regularity, the four- legged-animal cow has emerged as the latest fad in competitive politics aimed at forthcoming Assembly polls in several states, which are being touted as the semi-final before the 2019 general elections.
India is home to 512.05 million cattle consisting of cow, buffalo, sheep, goat, pig, horses and ponies, mules, donkeys, camels, mithun and yak as per the 19th Livestock Census conducted in 2012. Of this, the bovine population is 300 million.
For millennia, cows have been revered by Hindus. As India became independent and gave itself a Constitution for governance, it introduced a chapter – Directive Principles of States Policy – that gives positive direction to the state on several issues, including positive steps for prohibiting slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.
Since then, political parties have competed with each other protecting the holy cow. Despite that, the number of recognised cow shelters in the country is merely 1,802 while 5.3 million stray cattle rule the Indian roads and graze fields. Since the BJP-led NDA government came to power in India in 2014, lynching of Dalits and minorities in the name of protection of cow have become a central theme in north India.
Politics over cow safety
With the crucial assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to be held by the end of this year, cow protection has taken centre stage in the political narrative in these states. In the fourth state going for elections- Mizoram in north east India – this is, however, a non-issue as beef is a staple food among its Christian majority population.
Both the BJP and the principal opposition party-Congress are competing with each other to offer much support and care for the holy cow in these three north Indian “cow belt” states.
Take for instance Madhya Pradesh, where the population of cattle is over nine million, but only around 1, 50,000 cows are taken care of at the 604 registered cow shelters in the state. Nearly an equal number roam free on roads.
Madhya Pradesh government had opened India’s first cow sanctuary at Agar in Malwa district last year. The sanctuary is spread over 472 hectares and has the capacity to house 6,000 cows. It was built at a cost of INR 320 million (USD 4.57 million). The Samvarddhan Board runs over 600 registered gaushalas (cow shelters) in the state in which over 1, 40,000 bovines are reared.
Addressing an election rally on September 2, veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath, party in-charge of election, announced building a cow shelter each in the state’s 23,026 gram panchayats if the party is elected to power.
But the announcement has not gone well with BJP. It questioned where the land and funds required for shelters would come from. “This is more of a political statement than actual concern for cows. The BJP has opened eight big Gau Sadans (sanctuaries) in MP and two more of 5,000 capacity each are coming up in Rewa and Agar,” asserted Rajneesh Agarwal, a BJP state spokesperson.
Chairman of MP Cow Protection Board, Akhileshwaranand Giri, dubbed Nath’s promise a “political gimmick”. “During the Congress regime in MP, a meagre INR 20 million (USD 2, 78200) was allotted for the gau raksha (cow protection) board. Today, under the BJP rule, it is nearly INR 1 billion (USD14.29 million).”
“The Congress has no right to talk about cow protection. It was the Congress that had opposed the cow protection movement in the country and suppressed the agitation. Nath must clarify how many Congress leaders are running cow shelters in Madhya Pradesh. This is a tactic to garner political mileage,” Giri pointed out.
Why the bovine politics?
Congress’ poll strategy has to be seen in the context of Madhya Pradesh being a largely Hindu-dominated state where the minorities only amount to a mere seven per cent of the population. Minorities are concentrated in urban centres, especially in state capital Bhopal.
However, this is not the first time that the Congress has attempted to appropriate the BJP’s hardcore Hindutva support base. In the run-up to the 2013 assembly elections, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh attempted to project himself as a Hindutva leader. He spoke of the medicinal benefits of cow urine and even admitted that he drank it once. He also launched a movement against cow slaughter and demanded that it be banned across the country.
Congress party points out that it always cared for cow protection and how cow and calf was the party’s symbol once.
Once the elections are over, however, the most likely scenario is that the bovine population will still continue to be left in the lurch – dying on the railway tracks or suffocating by eating discarded polythene bags at the garbage dumps!