India's mammoth and hugely consequential Lok Sabha election is often cast in epic terms; indeed, recent descriptions have ranged from a struggle for the national soul to an Avengers-style endgame. Then there is "dharm yuddh", the ancient word chosen by Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, the BJP's controversial choice for the Bhopal race.
War, of course, is a well-worn metaphor for more benign kinds of competition, elections included. But the conversation surrounding India's polls has also drawn richly from the stories of two battles in particular. To crown their leaders in halos or needle their opponents, politicians have turned to the great Hindu epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat, for inspiration.
For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party fumed this week when Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said he was "as arrogant as Duryodhan," the eldest of the Mahabharat's Kauravas. Amit Shah, the BJP president, kept the metaphor alive in his riposte: he proclaimed at a rally that voters would tell Priyanka if Modi was Duryodhan or his cousin Arjun, one of the epic's heroes. Higher praise came last month from Sadhvi Pragya, who, according to a Times of India report, said Modi was an avatar of Lord Krishna -- God incarnate, who is Arjun's charioteer in the Kurukshetra war and his interlocutor in the Bhagavad Gita.
If Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was the critic this month, she was the target in January, when, soon after she formally entered politics, a BJP lawmaker called her Surpanakha -- the sister of Raavan, the Ramayan's villain. The MLA, Surendra Singh, cast the demon-king's role too; he said Rahul Gandhi was Raavan. And no prizes for guessing who, according to him, was Lord Ram: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The hero of the Ramayan is central to a festering dispute over the ownership of land in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where the Babri Masjid once stood before it was razed by kar sevaks in 1992. It is believed by Hindus to be the deity's birthplace, and the BJP has long promised to build a temple there. In March, the Supreme Court ordered court-ordered mediation of the title suit.
But as Surendra Singh's remarks show, the Ayodhya case isn't always involved when the Ramayan makes an appearance in poll rhetoric. For example, when Sitaram Yechury, the CPI-M's general secretary, recently said epics like the Ramayan or Mahabharat showed "even Hindus could be violent", Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the communist leader's first name in his retort. "The approach of the communists is still understandable. Theirs is a party based on foreign principles and ideologies," Modi said. "That's why they do not pay respect to either Ram or Sita attached to their names. They insult Ramayan and Mahabharat. It has become a fashion for them."