Rahul Gandhi is fighting BJP’s hard Hindutva with soft Hinduism. But fighting hard nationalism with soft nationalism will be disastrous.
He had to seek Lord Shiva’s good offices, but Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in getting the BJP in a tizzy. The sensible BJP response to his Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage could have been, what a great idea, sir-ji. May Bhole Baba give you some good sense and hope you pray for your rivals too. It would have closed the issue. A chilled-out God like Shiva would have likely appreciated it.
On the contrary, the BJP, which outnumbers the Congress six to one in Lok Sabha, is desperately fact-checking not only the pictures from his pilgrimage, but also questioning whether he is there at all. A particularly under-employed, voluble and Twitter-happy minister is even playing Sherlock by claiming that the picture Rahul has posted is photo-shopped because you can’t see his walking stick’s shadow.
It’s nutty on the BJP’s part as much as it is smart politics from Rahul. The BJP is so obsessed with Jawaharlal Nehru they continue to believe that his agnosticism drives his future generations as well. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv both demonstrated that it wasn’t the case, and their secular commitment didn’t mean they were probable non-believers like the founder of their dynasty.
Indira Gandhi wore a rudraksh string, was often seen visiting temples and patronised babas and tantriks, while Rajiv Gandhi unlocked the Ram temple site in Ayodhya, facilitated the shilanyas (laying of the foundation stone) for the Ram Mandir-to-be-built, and launched his 1989 campaign from Ayodhya, promising Ram Rajya. The 10 UPA years may have confused the Modi-Shah BJP when, given the Centre-Left nature of the coalition, any display of religiosity was missing. But even then, in the one spirited speech Dr Manmohan Singh made in Parliament to defend his nuclear deal, he proudly invoked ‘Chandi di vaar’, Guru Gobind Singh’s stirring rendering of Goddess Chandi’s prayer to Lord Shiva while going into battle.
Indira onwards, the Congress had abandoned the Nehruvian definition of hard secularism, redefining it as a more pragmatic if cynical combination of soft, understated religiosity with aggressive minorityism, or what the BJP would call appeasement. Rahul has gone further, “coming out” as janeu-dhari (sacred thread-wearing) Hindu, which many of us God fearing lot aren’t, visiting temples wrapped in white, and now this celebrated pilgrimage to Shiva’s abode as the campaign season begins.
Rahul Gandhi’s turn to flaunt religiosity passes the test of strategic logic. He is attempting to counter BJP’s hard Hindutva with soft Hinduism.
Many of his new supporters in the hard-secular Left are disturbed, but Rahul has the political smarts to understand that this country stretches a little beyond the Revolutionary Republic of JNU and no one can win elections by conceding the gods to the other side. The BJP’s sharp reaction, as in questioning whether he squatted like a Hindu on his backside or knelt on his knees like a Muslim (in the recent past) and whether his pictures from Kailash Mansarovar are genuine, indicates that they are thrown by it. They never expected a Gandhi to challenge their monopoly over Hinduism.
Just as his own party is now surprised by his prompt and unqualified support to those arrested on charges of Maoist links. Is he now, while fighting BJP’s hard Hindutva with soft religiosity, also planning to counter its hard nationalism with soft nationalism? If so, it will mark not one but two fundamental shifts from the classical Congress approach, the second more significant than the first, and riskier.
His support to those arrested was probably instinctive, but not debated at any party forum and a little unthinking. At least four of these people were arrested or restricted by his own UPA government. One spent six years in jail as an undertrial and the other seven, as a convict under serious terror charges including UAPA. Kobad Ghandy and G.N. Saibaba were both arrested by his UPA and remain incarcerated. Two key Naxals, Azad and Kishanji, were killed in what might be called “controlled killings” or “black operations” by his own government’s agencies.
Is he now reversing that? Does his reaction indicate a softer approach to what Dr Manmohan Singh had described in 2006 as the gravest internal security threat to India? We must note that it was under UPA-1 when his government was also supported by the Left. Manmohan Singh was sharp enough to make a distinction between the political and militant Left, as was the Left Front itself, harassed by Naxals in Bengal.
It is difficult to see Rahul making a shift, although several individuals and groups who drew their power from their proximity to his mother had then campaigned to block the then-home minister P. Chidambaram’s tough approach after the security forces suffered some major setbacks—one, in Chintalnar in Chhattisgarh, still remains the largest day’s loss of life by India’s uniformed forces since the 1971 war, besides the night of fighting in Operation Blue Star. Just when his forces had begun to push Naxals back, Mani Shankar Aiyar described his policy as “one-eyed”, a key Naxal’s wife released in return for a kidnapped IAS officer in Odisha turned out to be the head of an NGO run by redoubtable NAC member and activist Harsh Mander, and then Binayak Sen, on bail after a sedition conviction, was brought into a health committee of the Planning Commission.
Is that confusion returning now?
After the near-thing in Gujarat, we had said that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP will not risk going to the 2019 polls primarily based on economic performance. They will offer the voter a buffet of Hindutva, anti-corruption crusades and hard nationalism. Rahul is countering the first with his own idea of Hinduism, the second the Congress has a poor chance of fighting given its own reputation. The third, it could have easily more than matched on its own past.
Few democracies have fought harder, even brutally, to preserve themselves than India. Every insurgency has been defeated and its leaders put away, or embraced in the political mainstream. It is true of the radical Left movements too at various junctures. India is an unrelenting and unforgiving hard state. Forget losing sovereignty, it has added to it, notably with the merger of Sikkim. Barring one and a half, India has never had a government soft on national security or nationalism. And even these, one (Janata, 1977) and a half (V.P. Singh, 1989-90) were short-lived. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 on the twin thrust against a “khichdi sarkar” and a government so weak that even “little neighbours” were daring to glare at us (chhote desh bhi aankhein dikha rahe hain). It was a devastating pitch.
The Indian voter has never accepted a lazy, or muddled view of national security, external or internal. The armed Naxal movement has no support outside of the few remote districts they control any way and among a few ideological romantics. To be seen as soft towards them won’t get you any votes. India has no patience for such woolly-headedness. And in JNU, you’d be routed for not being revolutionary enough. Soft Hindutva-soft nationalism is self-destructive political schizophrenia. Unless it is rectified, and Rahul Gandhi comes clean on issues of national security, rather than merely list Modi’s “failures”, he will make his party fight 2019 on BJP’s terms and gift it an easy second term.