BJP Govt backtracks on Taj Mahal for summit sales pitch

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A spectacular view of the Taj Mahal, which has been at the center of a political row. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The government of India’s largest state caused uproar last October when it declared war on the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. In a damning statement, the BJP’s administration of Yogi Adityanath in the state of Uttar Pradesh branded the heritage site a “Muslim” monument.

The right-wing government, which champions Hindutva, even dropped the Taj Mahal from the state’s tourism budget, which caused global outrage. But reality has now overtaken political rhetoric with the BJP reinstating the site in official booklets in a move to placate international investors, which the state desperately needs.

Along with other Mughal monuments, the Taj Mahal will be showcased as a “major attraction” for the region during next month’s Global Investors Summit, according to official documents accessed by Asia Times.

A flashy compendium prepared for the event highlights the site’s lasting appeal to domestic and international visitors. The page also proudly declares that the monument has won the “best cultural destination in India award for 2016-17 by the Lonely Planet [guide] magazine.”

Other star attractions include Fatehpur Sikri and Lucknow, both known for their Mughal heritage, which are among the top 10 tourist destinations in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi, the world’s oldest living city, Sarnath, Shrawasti and Kushinagar, on the Buddhist circuit, are others.

Ayodhya, Vrindavan, Mathura, Chitrakoot, Allahabad and Vindhyachal will also be listed in the summit brochure. The event will also be used to pitch the state as a destination for filmmakers.

Once again, the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, built by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and Fatehpur Sikri’s Jehangir Mahal and Panch Mahal (Five Palaces), are billed as “top shooting locations.”

BJP outburst

This all a far cry from the original BJP outburst. But then, the party did not field a single Muslim candidate at this year’s Assembly elections. There has even been talk inside the BJP of cracking down on slaughterhouses and meddling with Madrassas – moves which are considered anti-Muslims.

Still, several top Hindi personalities such as Javed Akhtar, Muzaffar Ali and Naseeruddin Shah will attend the summit, as well as famous actors from the state, like Amitabh Bachchan, Anurag Kashyap and Priyanka Chopra.

Clearly, the government has recognized the popularity of major domestic stars and the importance of the Taj Majal and other Mughal monuments in the state. “Politics over religious lines can get you votes but not the goodwill or money,” said a Lucknow University professor, who wished to remain anonymous. “The BJP government knows this truth, hence the balance.”

Built in the 17th century as a mausoleum by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal attracts more than four million visitors annually, including over 200,000 foreign tourists. It also generates about US$32 million in revenue from the sale of tickets. The gross annual turnover of Agra’s tourism sector is around rupees 1,000 crore ($60 million).

To underline its status, the Hindutva-championing chief minister of the state, Yogi Adityanath, received the visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Taj Mahal earlier this week.

Naturally, this prompted his critics on social media to point out the hypocrisy of the BJP’s earlier stance. Back then, a legislator from the ruling BJP, Sangeet Som, called the Taj Mahal “a blot on Indian history.” Vinay Katiyar, a BJP MP, went even further, claiming the site was originally a Shiva temple.

Statements like these were seen as an attempt to trigger tension and polarize the majority Hindus against the minority Muslims. But as the row boiled over on to the international stage, Adityanath, tried to diffuse the issue. He said the Taj Mahal was “made by blood and sweat of India’s sons and laborers.”

Many saw this as an attempt to limit the damage caused by his colleagues. But skeptical observers pointed out that Adityanath did not criticize Som and Katiyar for their comments. The party also refused to take any action against the pair, underlining what critics called a “state of confusion” to suit a political narrative.

Major event

Moving on, the  Global Investors Summitt in Lucknow, the state’s capital city, is being billed as a major event when it takes place on Feb. 21-22. “About 5,000 investors and industrialists are expected to congregate from across India and the world,” a state government official told Asia Times.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to open the summit, which is aimed at promoting ‘Brand UP’, or the Uttar Pradesh state, by attracting significant investment.

Key sectors identified include infrastructure, civil aviation, electronics, handloom and textiles, renewable energy, agriculture and food processing, as well as high-tech startups. The government is in the process of giving Lucknow a massive facelift for the summit.

Indeed, this is the first mega event to be held in the state capital. Under the previous Akhilesh Yadav-led regime, investors summits were held at Agra, which houses the Taj Mahal.

To generate momentum for next month’s gathering, the Yogi government is holding road shows in six major cities across the country.  Leading industrialist Gautam Adani attended one at Ahmadabad, and he is considered to be very close to Prime Minister Modi and other prominent businessmen.

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