Panaji: Politicians in Goa have suddenly begun sponsoring pilgrimages to Hindu and Christian religious sites with gusto - possibly hoping for "divine intervention" in the March 3 polls. Both aspiring candidates as well as Election Commission officials acknowledge that Hindu and Christian voters were being sponsored for pilgrimages to Shirdi in Maharashtra - known as the destination of Sai Baba devotees - and to Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu, a famous pilgrimage site for Christians.
"Yes, we conducted a raid on three buses with passengers headed for Shirdi. We had received a complaint that a political party had sponsored the trip to Shirdi," chief electoral officer S. Kumaraswamy said on Monday. The authorities let the passengers go on with the pilgrimage after verifying the travel details with the agent who did the booking for the tour.
Such trips to Shirdi as well as to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health at Vailankanni have not been uncommon over the past year, but there has been a sudden surge, with politicians and ticket aspirants hoping to convert the currency of faith into votes.
"The travel arrangement, food and staying quarters are all sponsored. Generally a lot of women of the house opt for these trips. It is a weekend away from home and it is a pilgrimage. Who does not like going on a pilgrimage?" the 'travel agent' of a legislator from north Goa told IANS.
Pilgrimages are conducted in jeeps, with five to six to the unit, and by busloads. And the pilgrims return home after a three-day-two-night trip with more than just blessings. "We often give a few days of rations, essentials like dals, rice, oil and a household utility like a fan or thermos on return. The per person cost is around Rs.4,000 overall, which is sponsored," an organiser of one of these tours said.
For the pilgrims, however, a trip to their deity is enough to wash off all possible sins, which perhaps also includes accepting the not too subtle bribe by the aspiring politician who is sponsoring the tour.
Former tourism minister Mathany Saldanha, who became one of the first big ticket Christian leaders to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last week, said sponsoring of religious pilgrimages was a leveller of sorts.
"People say the BJP is communal. But look at this - people from both the Congress and the BJP are sponsoring pilgrimages to Shirdi and Vailankanni. No one is communal any more!" Saldanha said.