Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is a key BJP leader. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

Elections for the Lok Sabha, lower house of India’s Parliament, are not far away, and it seems that names have assumed much significance this election season. A recent example is the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to rename Allahabad as Prayagraj.

Uttar Pradesh is the most politically significant state, sending 80 members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha. Naturally, the question arises: How does changing the name of a city help its development? If it happens, how much will it help?

I don’t think that even the UP state government knows of any positive impact, apart from the electoral benefits. According to the government, the decision was only to rectify the “mistake” made by the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar.

One obvious question that strikes the mind is why the city was not renamed as Prayag, the name mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. “Prayagraj” is actually the name of the express train that runs from Allahabad to New Delhi.

One significant point is that Prayag and Allahabad are historically different places. The name Prayag is even used today to denote the Hindu religious place where the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati – meet each other. Allahabad was the city built by Akbar near Prayag and originally it was called Illahabas, the “Place of God.” So UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath could have renamed Allahabad as Illahabas.

It appears that Yogi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to divert the attention of the people in an election year by invoking majority Hindu sentiments by claiming to restore the “original” name of Allahabad, which was “changed” by Akbar.

Social media were abuzz with the news that the government of Himachal Pradesh state might also change the name of its capital, Shimla, to Shyamala, but now it seems that the decision has been put into cold storage. However, it doesn’t appear that the name-changing strategy will stop here.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has left the BJP behind in changing names, as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s party has changed the name of the party leader himself. Isn’t that surprising? But it’s true. The name of the leader is Atishi Marlena, who currently is known as Atishi Singh in the party posters.

According to reports, the party felt the surname “Marlena” sounded “Christian” or “foreign.” So the surname was changed to “Singh,” the last name common among upper-caste Hindus. She is said to be the probable AAP candidate from the South Delhi constituency in the 2019 general elections. It appears that Kejriwal’s party has assumed that a Hindu surname instead of a “Christian” one would help its candidate to emerge victorious in South Delhi.

Really, to win elections, parties and leaders leave no stone unturned – even sometimes doing things totally out of the box that have nothing to do with real issues. At times a very well-known city is changed to an “authentic” name, or a leader’s surname is changed so it sounds different, which may not go well with the voters.

These trends show that to win elections in India, even names are very significant. One of the famous quotes of William Shakespeare – “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – loses its flavor if the election politics of India is taken into account. Had Shakespeare been alive today he would have definitely redrafted this passage in Romeo and Juliet, just like the name of Allahabad was “purified,” by saying that “A rose wouldn’t smell as sweet by any other name; after all, in this era of political battle games, names matter more than burning general issues.”

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Sagarneel Sinha

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.