“Aurangzeb Road has been (re)named after such a great man who, despite being a Muslim, was a nationalist and humanist—A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.”
“The Gita and Ramayana reflect India’s soul. I respect the Bible and the Quran, but they are not central to the soul of India in the way the Gita and Ramayana are.”
“Girls wanting a night out” is “not part of Indian culture.”
“We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised, where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored, be it in the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutions which have been polluted over the years.”
“If the sacrifices of a few help maintain the religious sentiments of a section of society, there is no harm in doing so.”
“Hindi is our national language and must be made compulsory in all schools in the country.”
On banning meat during Navratri: “It will be a political decision. We would want that.”
Over the past month, he has grabbed headlines with his outrageous comments, turning him from a virtual unknown to a poster boy for the RSS and its renewed attempts to impose its peculiar brand of culture on the country. Dr Mahesh Sharma, 55, the MP from Gautam Budh Nagar (Noida), may have no mass following or serious political standing, but as Union minister of state (independent charge) for culture he is in a vantage position to push an extreme right-wing agenda. And he seems eager to do so to.
So far, his prescriptions for “cleansing Indian society” have shown him up not only as irresponsible and insulting, considering his cabinet rank, but also as embarrassing to an NDA government trying to win hearts and minds in the forthcoming battle for Bihar. It hardly seems to matter to him that his public utterances are completely at odds with the image Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to project as he heads to New York and Silicon Valley. In fact, he has gone on record to vow that he’ll “cleanse western pollution from Indian culture”. Worse, his statements show him as having a scary anti-secular agenda. He might have been speaking exactly what he thought when he made an outre comment on late former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, saying that Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road was being renamed after someone who was a nationalist and a humanist despite being a Muslim.
All this is, of course, of a piece with more recent wisdom from the good doctor, who informed us that the Bible and the Quran are not part of our “national soul or culture”—only the Bhagwad Gita is. He also believes that girls going on nights out—or wanting to do so—is something that runs against the Indian ethos. What seem more dangerous are his hints that he’ll bring the 39 cultural institutions—including museums, galleries, zonal cultural centres and schools of drama—that his ministry controls in alignment with the Hindutva-Sangh parivar worldview. Shocks are already being felt at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi, where director Mahesh Rangarajan, a respected historian, has resigned after Sharma declared the manner of his appointment by the previous UPA government as “illegal and unethical”. Dr Karan Singh, a founder of the NMML, says he’s disappointed at what has happened but that he “would not descend to the level of debating with Mahesh Sharma”. The minister tried to make out as if there was no connection between his comments and the resignation. But the fact that Rangarajan had been allowed to continue for 15 months after the NDA took charge suggests that the BJP wasn’t particularly unhappy with him or his work. With the minister’s inciting remarks having come right after the RSS conclave in Delhi, Sharma leaves himself open to the charge that the Sangh clique is dictating his agenda.
Not that such a charge would bother him in the least, for he wears his association with the RSS on his sleeve—and flaunts it perhaps as an alternative to his being a political lightweight. His website describes him as “a staunch follower of the RSS” and he makes every effort to project himself as a Modi fan: on the prime minister’s 65th birthday last week, he unveiled a 365 kg laddoo and had the occasion delared ‘swachhata diwas’. He is also known to be a protege of RSS ideologue Krishna Gopal Sharma, the liaison man between the Sangh and the BJP.
Sharma takes a hard line in matters such as the meat ban, which impinge on personal choice and liberty. He openly supported the meat ban during the Jain festival of paryushan, and is of the view that it should be extended to the Hindu festival of Navratra. Says Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, “We have to be extremely wary of Sharma’s religious projections and his divisive approach. I had expected this to happen. After 500 days in power, the real BJP/RSS agenda is coming out.”
“We must be extremely wary of Sharma’s divisive approach and his religious projections,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Despite repeated efforts, Sharma refused to be interviewed by Outlook, perhaps an indication that he has been told to clam up while the prime minister is abroad lest he cause embarrassment. But it’s unlikely that the damage he has done to the NDA’s image can be papered over so easily. Even his colleagues and close aides refuse to speak to the media on Sharma. What is intriguing, however, is how quickly Sharma has risen from relative obscurity to front-page news. He is a first-time MP and it remains a mystery why he was given such key ministerial charges. He has also been an MLA in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, again as a debutant, before making the jump to the national level. Apart from culture, he has independent charge of the tourism ministry and is a junior minister in the civil aviation ministry. In Noida, he is a prominent face, with memberships at and patronage of quite a few organisations and clubs. He runs Kailash Hospitals, a profitable chain with branches in Haridwar, Jewar, east Delhi and Behror. According to his election affidavit, he’s worth close to Rs 50 crore. Over the last two years, he’s become close to BJP president Amit Shah, who assigned him important party work during the elections in Maharastra last year.
Yet, even within the RSS, there are those who are critical of Sharma for the contradictions in what he says and what he does. They will not come on record, but point to the fact that Sharma talks about Indian culture, values, ethos and simplicity, but had no qualms in hosting a lavish wedding reception for his daughter, Dr Pallavi Sharma, an eye surgeon, in February this year. In attendance were cabinet colleagues like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. It was held at a stadium in Noida and attended by an estimated 25,000 people. For one vehemently opposed to western culture, he claims (on his website) to like playing golf and is a life member/patron of a golf club. His family members are medical practitioners in the allopathic tradition, and he had no qualms about sending his son, Dr Kartik Sharma, for a course on hospital management at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
There is also talk of Sharma using his financial and political clout locally to break the law. On the Noida authority’s list of illegal encroachments is Kailash Hospital itself, found guilty of having encroached on the radial road for the hospital’s parking. Ironically enough, Sharma is one of the people Modi has assigned the task of overseeing development projects in his constituency of Varanasi. He visits the holy city regularly.
Of late, Sharma has been on the backfoot, blaming the media for quoting him out of context. The buzz in the BJP is that he has been issued a gag-order right from the PMO, in case he embarrasses the prime minister during his interaction with world leaders and the iconic figures he will be meeting in Silicon Valley. Having one of his ministers criticising girls for wanting a night out and railing against western culture may not go down well while Modi is meeting Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or NRIs who have thrived in a western environment. But he can still nurse hope. The gag, according to aides, is only operable till the prime minister returns, after which, presumably, the Sharma show will again hit the road. Right-hand drive, of course.
By Mihir Srivastava in Delhi