While BJP doesn’t even pretend to be secular, Congress remains the safest refuge for minorities in India.
As I address audiences around the country, one of the questions I find myself increasingly being asked is: “Isn’t the Congress now practicing a form of ‘soft Hindutva’? Haven’t you become ‘BJP Lite’?”
The short answer is no. I have long argued that any attempt to emulate ‘Pepsi Lite’ by ‘BJP Lite’ will end up like ‘Coke Zero’ – that is, Congress Zero. Congress is not BJP in any shape or form, and we should not appear to be attempting to be a lighter version of something we are not.
But the question is asked repeatedly, and it requires a fuller answer. The questioners tend to point to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits, Digvijaya Singh taking credit for banning beef in his state, Kamal Nath promising gaushalas in every district of Madhya Pradesh, the Congress Party’s support for Sabarimala devotees in Kerala against the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of reproductive age to worship at the shrine, and for that matter even my own book Why I am a Hindu, to suggest that the Congress party is emulating the BJP in appealing to Hindu sentiment rather than to its own secular traditions.
The respected columnist G. Sampath, writing (ironically enough) in The Hindu, even questioned “whether the Congress can emerge as a meaningful alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu majoritarian politics”. Repeating the ‘soft Hindutva’ charge, Mr Sampath averred “that even an outright victory for a Congress-led alliance in 2019, however improbable it may seem at present, may not really signify a defeat of communal forces”. He concluded that “liberals and other good-hearted people hoping that Mr. Gandhi and the Congress would rescue them from Hindutva may be in for a rude awakening”.
Such criticisms do not take the Congress’ own assurances at face value – that it remains a party for all, the safest refuge for the minorities, the weak and the marginalised, and fundamentally committed to secularism. But the truth is that Congress is the only major party to say all of this and mean it. The BJP does not even bother to pretend that it has the interests of any of these sections at heart.
Our critics see the Congress party’s distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva as specious. They reject its leaders’ arguments that the Hinduism respected by Congress leaders is inclusive and non-judgemental, whereas Hindutva is a political doctrine based on exclusion. They are quick to conclude that what the Congress offers is merely a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rahul Gandhi has made it explicitly clear that, for all his willingness to avow his personal Hinduism, he does not support any form of Hindutva, neither soft nor hard. The Congress understands that whereas Hinduism is a religion, Hindutva is a political doctrine that departs fundamentally from the principal tenets of the Hindu faith. While Hinduism is inclusive of all ways of worship, Hindutva is indifferent to devotion and cares only about identity. Hinduism is open to reform and progress, which is why it has flourished for 4,000 years; Hindutva is reactionary and regressive, with its roots in the ‘racial pride’ ethos that spawned Fascism in the 1920s, which is why it is unlikely to outlast its current peak this century.
There are more fundamental differences. Congress leaders profess a Hinduism that accommodates a vast amount of diversity and respects the individual and his/her relationship with the divine; the BJP’s Hindutva prefers communal identity politics and seeks to Semitise the faith into something it is not – a uniform monolithic religion. Congress leaders’ Hinduism rests on Swami Vivekananda’s ideas of the acceptance of difference, embracing with respect people of other religions; the BJP’s Hindutva seeks to erase differences by assaulting, intimidating and subjugating those with other views.
Why then should the liberal Indian feel any despair in Hindu Congressmen avowing such a version of their personal faith? In this Congressman’s understanding, Hinduism is not a totalising belief system; it offers a way of coping with the complexity of the world. It acknowledges that the truth is plural, that there is no one correct answer to the big questions of creation, or to the meaning of life. The greatest truth, to the Hindu, is that which accepts the existence of other truths.
Most faiths prioritise one identity, one narrative and one holy book. To the Congressman, Hinduism recognises that everyone has multiple identities, accepts diverse narratives and respects several sacred books. Indeed, the folk Hinduism of multiple beliefs cannot be forced into the Abrahamic framework of One Book, One Deity and one way of doing things, which is what the BJP would prefer. The more the Hindu grapples with the great questions, the more he/she understands how much is beyond our understanding. But Hindutva prefers to deal in certitudes.
For me, as a Congressman and an avowed liberal, I find it easy to claim allegiance to Hinduism—a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual inquiry, and self-study; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from. These are not the qualities admired by the advocates of Hindutva. In a world where resistance to authority is growing, Hinduism imposes no authorities; in a world of networked individuals, Hinduism proposes no institutional hierarchies; in a world of open-source information-sharing, Hinduism accepts all paths as equally valid. In every case, Hindutva asserts the opposite.
So, I would say to the troubled liberal, have no fear. The Congress, even in visiting temples and professing Hinduism, is not about to abandon you. Our faith has nothing to do with the Hindutva that you rightly abhor. It remains true to the tolerant, liberal heart of the Hinduism that has made India the safest place for non-Hindus. And we are not going to allow the BJP to change that.
Shashi Tharoor is an MP for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
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