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.


Also read: Why Sabarimala issue leaves instinctive liberals like me torn: Shashi Tharoor


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.


Also read: BJP will hand Ayodhya victim card to every Hindu voter ahead of 2019 elections


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.


Also read: The 4 Cs that mark Congress’ decline from secularism to soft Hindutva


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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  1. I love it when he said “Hinduism is open to reform and progress, which is why it has flourished for 4,000 years”. But he did open his mouth and views on the so called minority with 20% population.Here is the problem. Always take the Hindu for granted by saying this reform stuff. Have you ever tried any reforms for the Minority? All you do is take opinion of fanatics and pander to that and punish the poor minorities. You kept them poor. Your stand on Triple Talaq is the prime example. Look you congress guys argued in favor of TT. Hindus are the same people who elected you guys for 60 years. Rajiv got 400 plus seats. Did Hindus not vote then? Why did Hindu’s move away? BJP talks to Hindus and want their votes. That is why BJP grew. You guys never respected the Hindu sentiments, but BJP does. Not only BJP you guys lost to BSP,SP, TDP, BJD and all. Why? It is not about Hindu vs Muslim topic alone. But for you it is only the minority votes you need by instilling fear. Anyway this reply will not get posted by the moderator. That is what a Hindu will get in this liberal world

  2. Moderator: A request. You allow only those views that supports the authors. So much for your liberal free speech. The more you muzzle views not to your liking, the more powerful it become. Good Luck.

  3. There is merit in the criticism that the Congress is becoming more overt in displaying the Hindu identity of its leaders, especially Shri Rahul Gandhi. A few temple visits to set at rest insidious suggestions that the party is anti Hindu are in order, but the party is going overboard in Madhya Pradesh. Its relationship with the Muslims need not be so nudge nudge wink wink either. Nor should they be taken for granted, Aap ke pass aur option hi kya hai … Give a few more tickets to Muslim candidates, say it clearly and say it often that protection and welfare of all minorities, especially the Muslims, is an article of faith. 2. The Congress should not assign so much weightage to religious issues to keep up with the Joneses. None of us knows how potent a factor this will be in the next election. Let the party in fact say we want religion to be a matter of private faith and observance, our focus is only on Vikas who seems to be MIA.

  4. Shashi Tharoor will soon be Mani Shankar Iyer 2.0…a complete lackey shouting from the rooftop in support of the dynasty. Mr Tharoor have you got the guts to put your name for the role of PM in a family driven political enterprise?

  5. Mr. Tharoor need not present a laboured justification for Rahul’s temple visits. The best explanation is that the Congress party is following Gandhiji in his harmonious interpretation of religious diversity in the country. Gandhiji said that he was a good Hindu, and for that reason he was also a good Muslim and a good Christian and a good Sikh and a good Parsee. Only BJP says that you have to be an Islam-Christianity hater to be a good Hindu. What Gandhiji said was the more abiding truth about Hinduism and what RSS-BJP preaches is a superficial and illiterate version of Sanatan Dharma.

  6. Super stuff. Very well argued and articulated. Frankly even if Congress is practicing soft Hindutva..I don’t mind. After all there are no perfect choices in the life, naturally if I have too chose between a Murderer and a Pickpocket, I will be idiotic of me chose the former.

  7. Shashi: great piece. Now please ask Mr. Rahul Gandhi to repeat, what you profess to be, the congress version of Hinduism. If he can even comprehend what you have written, leave alone articulate it, then we can begin to believe its authenticity. Otherwise, this is just opportunistic balderdash, old chap!

  8. I have no problem with secularism. But, I have a severe problem with communism as well as the Congress history of finding short term, knee jerk reaction solutions to the problems of the country after Nehru had passed away. In 50 years, the Congress never attempted for long term, long lasting (permanency is not possible since change is the rule and new problems arise out of existing solutions) solutions for any of the nation’s problems. The only exception was P.V. NARASIMHA RAO, who not only thought it but also implemented it. What happened to him?
    For example, if people are poor, since it is the government’s mandate to provide free basic education & healthcare & infrastructure, it should have done so but has never happened. Instead, it resorts to loan waiver, minority appeasement, caste divisions (which is as regressive as the BJP Hindutva), nepotism, favouritism, allow bureaucratic corruption, buy media with money and loot the general public.
    Shashi Tharoor should realise that people in India are very well aware of what the education level as well as knowledge level of Rahul Gandhi is. They are also very well aware that not everyone can excel at everything. Shashi Tharoor’s weapons might be his oratory and eloquent vocabulary but that does not change the facts when presented in simple, plain vocabulary which is most easily understood by the layman.

  9. Mr Tharoor, nobody can ever object to anyone practising his faith covertly. But this should be kept out of politics. The state cannot be a party to religious activities.
    Again the Muslims, I am sure do not expect the government to do anything special for them. But when they are being targeted and their innocent are mob-lynched at least have the courage and humanity to stand up for them and make an issue out of it. Make sure justice is done. Don’t be cowed down and be afraid to talk of their problems just because you fear that you will lose Hindu votes. I can assure you that all right right-minded Hindus also do not want to see the violence and discrimination that is being perpetrated against the minorities. By not taking up the cause of the Muslims you are giving out the message that you accept the wrong allegations of your opponents that you were earlier appeasing Muslims. You never did that. But you have to ensure that justice is done to all sections of society, irrespective of caste,class,race or religion.One way of doing this is by providing proper representation to all.

  10. Nobody can have any objections to Rahul Gandhi or any Congressman or for that matter any person practising his religion covertly, and making a big show of it also if he wants. But when it is being used politically it is sending out a very wrong message. The congress is doing this to attract the Hindu voter, but this is the easy way forward. The ideal way would have been for this Party to have stuck to its secular credentials as Nehru would and to educate the masses of the follies and shortsightedness is mixing religion with politics. Then it would have stood out different from its opponents and commanded the respect of all right minded Indians, the educated and liberal Hindus included.
    By going about it the way it is , it is almost acknowledging that it used to appease the Muslims in the past, which it never did. The justification being that they have to win the elections and anything for that is par for the course. One would have thought that if instead they did aggressively denounce the mob-lynchings and violence against Muslims, and worked towards greater representation for all irrespective of caste,class, race or religion they would have a greater chance of making a come-back as most Indians are now convinced of having a government which does not divide people and which works in the best interests of all, and upholds the plural nature of Indian society in practice and not by words alone. Tharoor with his erudite learning and scholarship is most qualified to lead the Indians in this right direction. And so instead of telling the liberals don’t be wary of Congress’s soft Hindutva , he should be advising Rahul and his party men of the need to stand out different from its opponents/enemies and to uphold the true spirit of India.

  11. I recall Tharoor’s once having described Rahul Gandhi as a sincere and very well-read person. From what we have heard from Mr. Gandhi over last almost 10 years, it is obvious that Mr. Tharoor was bull-shitting and boot-licking. It is a great misfortune of Indians if they have to be ruled by Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi’s visiting temples is obscene; his poll promises are scary; his ability to paint much-needed change is non-existent. He just does not have a blue-print. This only shows that Congress has run out of ideas on how to defeat Modi.

    We would like to know what has Congress learnt from this shock called Modi. If voted to power, what will it do that is different from what Modi and the Congress itself have done before 2019. While Modi is malicious, Rahul Gandhi, undoubtedly, is a buffoon. It gives us jitters to think that, if not by cancerous Modi, we could be ruled by RG, Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, and their ilk; the old Congress gang. Given where India stands today, an unknown devil is certainly better than the known ones. Can congress promise that nobody who has been a minister in the union cabinet in last 15 years will be made a minister? Can they keep Rahul Gandhi out? Can they deprive Sonia Gandhi of the remote control? Do it. Show us some new faces; some new ideas; some new hopes. Do not define Congress just as not-BJP. As they say, “people don’t steak because it not tofu. They eat steak because it is steak.” Do it for the sake of the poor of India.

  12. A right differentiation between Hinduism and Hidutva. The former is all inclusive, but the latter exclusive. Good article by Shashi Tharoor.

  13. Love the irony of welcoming those who believe in One Book One Way by assertions of how ‘hindus’ respect that and believe everyone is simultaneously right. A more muddle headed hindu cannot be found anywhere else except in khangress.

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