Holy cow hogs poll limelight
The new icon of Indian politics lives in the open, survives on grains, fodder and leftovers and keeps its mouth shut most of the time.
No, not a selfless, tireless messiah of the masses -- but the cow, a placid animal that now finds itself plunged into the swirl of politics ahead of various state elections this year and the general election due next year.
For the country's leading political parties, it spells votes.
As both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress demand a ban on cow slaughter in a bid to win the backing of the country's Hindu majority, the animal is increasingly dominating poll campaigns.
While Hindu hardliners have long nurtured hopes of a complete ban on the slaughter, export or consumption of cows, it is the first time that the Congress party has jumped on the cattle wagon.
Hindus, who constitute 82 percent of India's billion people, consider the cow a sacred animal. But despite the emotional attachment the cow has largely remained outside the pale of politics - until now.
Campaigning for next week's elections in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee thundered that his national government was serious about banning the killing of cows.
His remarks followed allegations by Congress activists in Madhya Pradesh that while paying lip service to cow welfare, the export of beef from India had risen steadily since Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998.
Uncharitable Congress supporters even accused the bachelor prime minister of being a secret beef consumer.
A peeved Vajpayee retorted: "I would rather die than eat beef."
A day later, the BJP hit back, tauntingly asking when did the Italy-born Congress president Sonia Gandhi stop eating beef.
It all began after Madhya Pradesh's Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh launched a high-pitched "Save the Cow" campaign in a bid to prevent the BJP from raking up Hindu passions as it did in neighbouring Gujarat during the assembly elections in that state, reaping a rich electoral harvest.
Taken aback, a defensive BJP is now trying to outdo its rival by demanding a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.
"Cow slaughter ban is enshrined in the directive principles of state policy in the constitution," argued BJP MP Balbir Punj. "It is unfortunate that it has not been enforced till now.
"But we are happy the Congress is finally supporting the cause."
With tacit support from its central leadership, the Congress units in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan - two major states going to the polls this year - have raised slogans seeking a ban on cow killing to blunt a Hindu nationalist wave that can favour the BJP after its Gujarat victory.
Some Congress leaders are lauding the pro-cow campaign, but some MPs are sceptical about falling into the trap of "Hindutva" politics - a reference to what the BJP says is Hindu nationalism but which critics say is Hindu communalism.
Congress MP Prithviraj Chavan is disgusted by the cow politics.
"I cannot believe that such an irrelevant issue can gain precedence over poverty, unemployment, economy and security," he said.
Sections of the BJP have called for a ban on the killing of cow ever since Vajpayee came to power in 1996 and again in 1998, but the communally sensitive issue has been discreetly kept aside.
In 2001, the government set up the National Commission on Cattle after a Hindu pontiff, Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, threatened a fast on the issue.
The panel's 1,600-page report submitted last year recommended an immediate ban on cow slaughter and proposed legislation as stringent as the anti-terror law, Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Former judge Ghuman Mal Lodha, the chairman of the now-disbanded panel, suggested this was the right time for the government to do it.
"The step is 55 years overdue. Now the government is stable and even the Congress is supporting a ban," Lodha told IANS. "Most importantly, there is a Hindu wave in the country, so it will be easy."
But the ban slogans threaten to drown the voices of experts who believe a stop to the killing of cattle would wreak havoc on India's ecology.
Said cattle expert L.N. Modi, who quit the National Commission on Cattle in protest: "Simply banning cow slaughter without improving production would render the animals uneconomic and a burden. It would simply be a disaster."
It would also hurt economic interests, he says, decrying the way the subject has been politicised.
Reports suggest India is all set for a seventh consecutive record in beef production, reaching 1.9 million tonnes in 2003, although it prohibits beef imports due to religious sensitivities.
Beef exports have also increased from 222,000 tonnes in 1999 to 420,000 tonnes in 2003, prompting the Congress to tom-tom the BJP as a promoter of beef exports.
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