NEW DELHI It is an irony of history that Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence from British colonial rule in 1947, is now in a popularity contest with Veer Savarkar, arrested for the assassination of the "Apostle of Peace" but acquitted for lack of corroborative evidence.
Gandhi was shot dead at a prayer meeting on Jun 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who like most Hindu chauvinists to this day, blame him and his philosophy of non-violence for the partition of the subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu majority India immediately before independence.
In fact, it was Savarkar who was a staunch proponent of the idea that India consisted of two "nations" Hindu and Muslim. Gandhi, on the other hand, agreed to the partition only because he saw the futility of resisting and was keen on avoiding bloodshed.
During its six years in power that ended with the surprise electoral defeat in May, the pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did its best to rehabilitate Veer Savarkar. The BJP even unveiled his portrait in Parliament House at a ceremony boycotted by the Congress and other parties that were then part of the national opposition.
Savarkar is considered a staunch patriot, especially in his native Maharashtra state, but his critics accuse him apart from conspiring to assassinate Gandhi of winning his way out of a British jail set up in a penal colony on the Andaman Islands jail by swearing fealty to the British Crown.
On a recent visit to the Andaman Islands, senior Congress Party leader and cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar ordered the removal of a plaque inscribed with the sayings of Savarkar, set up during BJP rule, and replaced it with another bearing quotes from Gandhi.
With Maharashtra set to elect a new assembly next month, in the first major trial of strength after the April/May general elections, the BJP has discovered in the "insult" to Savarkar a convenient election issue in a state where he has iconic status rivaling that of Gandhi.
In fact, BJP members did their best to use the plaque issue to stall the just concluded budget session of Parliament and the important finance bill which brought in sweeping social changes. The bill was then passed without the participation of the BJP-led opposition.
Sensing danger to its prospects in Maharashtra , the Congress Party quickly distanced itself from Aiyar’s opinions of Savarkar with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself saying at a weekend press conference to mark the 100 days in office of his Congress-led government that he considered Savarkar to be a "patriot and a freedom fighter."
Despite the partition, India continues to have the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.
Winning the Maharashtra elections could give the BJP the morale booster it badly needs after its shock defeat in the general elections, which many of its own hardline leaders said came about because it had abandoned its core ideology of "Hindutva" (or Hinduness).
On the other hand, the Congress Party and its allies in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) attribute their victory to their championship of the essentially secular character of the Indian republic which the party has been relentlessly maintaining.
In practical terms, that boils down to the Congress championing the ideals of Gandhi and the BJP doing its best to deify Savarkar and present him as an alternative at least for the Maharashtra campaign.
In the latest episode of this war of icons, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which provides men and muscle to the BJP, filed a defamation suit against Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh for accusing the organization of involvement in the Gandhi assassination.
Arjun Singh reacted by saying that he stood by the charges he made at a national convention earlier this month where he said the country could expect little from an organization (the RSS) whose "biggest achievement was the killing of Mahatma Gandhi."
The ties that Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse maintained with the RSS were sufficiently close for a ban to be slapped on the organization for more than a year afterwards by the post-independence Indian government.
The RSS has consistently denied having anything to do with a murder that caused the United Nations to declare a period of mourning.
One reason that the BJP is falling back to historical figures and "national" issues is that its allies in the ousted National Democratic Allies (NDA) have warned that they would quit the coalition if the BJP persisted with its communal agenda.
Many of the BJP’s allies, notably the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in southern Andhra Pradesh, have blamed the electoral debacle suffered by the NDA on the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in western Gujarat that continues to be ruled by the BJP as are also the major states of central Madhya Pradesh and western Rajasthan.
Clearly, the BJP’s pro-Hindu stance is suffering from the law of diminishing returns.
A "Mood of the Nation" opinion poll commissioned by the pro-BJP India Today newsmagazine and released on Sunday showed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rapidly gaining in popularity over the NDA that was favored to win handsomely in the April/May elections on a supposed "feel-good factor."
The BJP is far from anything like reviving the wave of pro-Hindu sentiment it generated in 1992 around the emotive issue of building a temple to the warrior deity Rama on the site of the Babri Mosque which BJP supporters demolished in northern Uttar Pradesh’s northern Ayodhya town.
Yet, the Congress Party-led, communist-backed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is treading warily on issues that could give its arch rival an emotive edge and regain the political initiative.
Manmohan Singh’s government has left it to the Supreme Court to sort out issues arising from the worst legacy of the BJP rule the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in western Gujarat that left more than 2,000 people dead and tens of thousands of others homeless in the state where Mahatma Gandhi was born and spent much of his life.