TO SEE SUBRAMANIAN SWAMY in his natural habitat is emphatically not to see him thus: in the heart of a throng of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers, on a January morning, in the town of Dhar, in Madhya Pradesh. Mere minutes after Swamy, the president—and, frankly, the totality—of the Janata Party, hopped out of an SUV, he was swallowed by the crowd. Somewhere within its crevices, he was inserted into a massive garland, and a vivid red tilak was smeared across his forehead like an angry wound. Then he reappeared atop a jalopy that had been converted, with the judicious aid of a silvered backboard, silvered side panels and a cloth-covered bench, into a motorised chariot. The crowd disciplined itself into a column and began to trickle through the streets of Dhar. A small boy sat sideways next to the driver of the chariot and gaped unceasingly at Swamy. Even in late January, Dhar had grown decidedly hot by 10 am, and Swamy looked uncomfortable and hassled.
Late the previous night, standing near a baggage carousel at the Mumbai airport, Swamy had explained to me why we were headed to Dhar. A small delegation from the town had visited him in Delhi in early 2010 to ask if he would take up the case of the absent Vagdevi Saraswati, a striking 11th-century stone idol that had been transported, just over 100 years ago, from a Dhar temple to the British Museum in London. The idol used to occupy a temple within the Bhojashala, a school built by Bhoj, king of Malwa, around the year 1034 AD. “I got so busy with the 2G case, but these guys didn’t let me forget about it,” Swamy said. “And every Basant Panchami, they have this big rally in Dhar, so that’s where we’re going. I’m kind of a chief guest there.”
The Basant Panchami rally every spring has, for a couple of decades now, thrummed with communal tension. On the grounds of the Bhojashala is a dargah, also several centuries old, one of its green-and-white walls pressing up against the sandstone perimeter of the Bhojashala. The local police and the Madhya Pradesh government have tried, with varying degrees of sincerity and opportunism, to regulate the entry of Hindu and Muslim pilgrims into this complex; at the moment, Hindus pray on Tuesdays and on Basant Panchami, while Muslims pray on Fridays. The RSS has demanded, through repeated agitations, that the Bhojashala remain permanently open to Hindus—and, implicitly, closed to Muslims. “There have been lathi charges, and people have been injured and even died. You’ll probably see more police than public there,” Sanjay Sisodia, a Dhar journalist who runs a slim and extraordinarily colourful local weekly, told me before the rally. In 2006, Friday and Basant Panchami fell on the same day; Dhar’s Muslims were supposed to pray until 1 pm, but the police could not hold back the swelling sea of Hindu worshippers, and the lathis had to be broken out. In 2013, Sisodia observed gloomily, Basant Panchami would again land on a Friday.