Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A case in point is former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath. The Congress leader is being vociferous in his support of the upcoming Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, to be built on the site of the Babri Masjid that was demolished by a Taliban-like act of vandalism on 6 December 1992.
Nath probably thinks his loud support for this symbol of repression of Indian Muslims will help him win the upcoming bypolls in Madhya Pradesh and return to power as chief minister. Such a calculation shows he has learnt nothing from history.
Kamal Nath’s fellow Dosco (as Doon School boys call themselves) Rajiv Gandhi made the same mistake when he was prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi first painted himself as an appeaser of Muslim clerics by supporting Muslim personal law over a progressive Supreme Court judgment. This was the ‘Shah Bano’ moment.
Realising that this was costing him votes, Rajiv Gandhi, advised by his disastrous aide Arun Nehru, decided to cynically use the Ram Mandir issue to make sure he doesn’t lose ‘Hindu’ votes. No, it wasn’t just blackmail in the face of a rising Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It was active connivance. He allowed the opening of the Babri Masjid gates and ‘shilanyas’ prayers to be held inside because he and his advisors thought it would help them electorally. It was this decision that the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) used to turn the Ram temple demand into a nationwide mass movement.
Apart from damaging Indian secularism, it also did not help Rajiv Gandhi politically. Thereon, followed by the Babri Masjid demolition under the watch of another Congress prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress lost both ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ votes.
Today, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh welcome the construction of the Ram Mandir because, they say, ‘Indian citizens’ and Rajiv Gandhi wanted it too. They are right. Rajiv Gandhi thought a functioning Ram Mandir could become a reality within the mosque premises. The mosque needn’t be demolished. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), VHP, Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had other plans.
Instead of learning from Rajiv Gandhi’s mistake, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh want to repeat it. No wonder these are the same gentlemen who couldn’t even tell when the BJP pulled the rug from under their feet and dismantled their government.
The next Babri demolition
The VHP always said Babri Masjid was merely a trailer. They have a list of thousands of mosques they want to demolish and build temples in their place. If we have to revive and save secularism, we have to confront Rajiv Gandhi’s mistake in the eye. We have to make the Congress and other opposition parties accountable for their role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the destruction of Indian secularism. We need to do so if we want to learn from our past mistakes and prevent the relentless rise of a majoritarian idea of India.
Mosques were vandalised even in the riots in Delhi this February. Metaphorically speaking, the Babri Masjid is demolished again and again. The lynchings of Muslims, the hate on social media and prime time news, the exclusion and marginalisation are felt by the community in the same way as the demolition of Babri Masjid.
The Babri Masjid demolition was a symbolic act signifying the idea that Muslims will be made second-class citizens in India. The idea could attain formal status if the “chronology” laws of NPR-NRC-CAA are implemented. As part of a diabolical plan, laws that seem harmless by themselves work together to strip countless Indian Muslims of their citizenship.
1. Appeasement is suicide
If the Congress party thought it could appease Hindutva forces, and neutralise them by giving into their blackmail, then it clearly should have thought better. The Congress party’s Hindutva appeasement not only failed, it backfired. It then made the same mistake with the Lokpal movement in 2011. The party could have learned from the British, who tried the appeasement policy on Mahatma Gandhi following his agitations, and invariably failed.
The Congress could also look at how Prime Minister Narendra Modi handles a difficult situation. Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah tried to neutralise the anti-CAA protests by withdrawing from their position that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) were inter-linked. And they did it without appeasing the protesters. They didn’t invite the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh for talks. They said there was no proposal for an all-India NRC, but they didn’t rule it out. And they most certainly refused to back down on the CAA.
2. Erect a wall or be blown away by the winds
If you don’t appease, what do you do? Do you just sit by and twiddle your thumb? Not at all. You strike hard with an iron hand. That is what Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav did and look what happened: the Congress was wiped out of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Similarly, the anti-CAA protests were dissipated through violence — an engineered riot in Delhi even before the Covid pandemic struck. And the arrests of those involved in anti-CAA protests have been continuing relentlessly.
When faced with an oppositional movement, it is important to not fire in a way that the other side gets to play the victim card. But that does not mean one should resort to appeasement or sit idle either. Narasimha Rao could have easily saved the Babri Masjid by providing a stronger security cover around the mosque, and by arresting the movement’s leaders. Even after the demolition, the Congress did precious little to bring the perpetrators to justice, with a Liberhan Commission drawing on and on. What political benefit did the Congress get with such appeasement and inaction? Fifty-two Lok Sabha seats in 2019?
3. Silence is golden
Narendra Modi is (rightly) criticised for his long silence on important issues. From around 2010, he decided he was not going to speak about the 2002 Gujarat riots no matter how much his critics and the liberal media tried. People wanted him to apologise and show contrition. But silence is golden. The idea is simple: you speak about things that help you. So, Modi chose to speak only on development because that is the image he wanted to create for himself at the time.
One must speak only if one can improve upon the silence, said a great thinker once. There is absolutely no need for motormouth Congress leaders to speak on Ram Mandir. Again, silence does not have to be appeasement. Hard actions against your opponent can go perfectly well with strong words in favour of one’s own agenda.
4. Play on your own turf
Silence on Hindutva issues does not have to mean that the Congress and other opposition parties should speak on nothing at all. (Although, if you look at how little Sonia Gandhi speaks, you might be tempted to think her political strategy has been to not communicate with voters at all.)
Speak one must — on things that help one’s own cause. ‘Secular’ parties speaking on Hindutva is like playing on the BJP’s turf. Whether you oppose or appease Hindutva, it is Hindutva that gets to occupy people’s mind-space. People tend to think, ‘Aaj kal yeh chal raha hai. (This is what is working these days).’
Instead, create your own turf. Your own ideology. Your own mass movement. Your own cause. Your own slogans. Again, that is what non-Congress secular leaders such as Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and V.P. Singh did. They countered ‘Kamandal’ with ‘Mandal’ — caste.
But creating your own turf and cause requires you to be sure of your own ideological convictions. If you are doing ‘soft Hindutva’ today and ‘secularism’ tomorrow, nobody will trust you because people won’t know what you actually stand for. This is the mistake Rajiv Gandhi made — and this is the mistake Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is making.
People need some Kool-Aid to sip on. They need a cause, a movement, an ideology, a sense of purpose. The Congress and most opposition parties today are unable to give that to the people. What mass movement has the Congress party waged in living memory? Not one.
Apart from Mandal, another example of a non-Hindutva mass movement was the Lokpal movement. There is no shortage of causes that the public will be ready to rise up for: they could be about governance, economy, jobs, administrative reform, poverty, language, caste, regional identity, and labour rights, to count a few. The only things in short supply is imagination and political will.
5. Sell inclusive nationalism
Looking back, it may look like a miracle that despite a violent Partition on religious lines, Jawaharlal Nehru was able to sell secularism to Indian masses. That is what Indira Gandhi did too. It was a politically naive Rajiv Gandhi who fell into the trap of inter-religious conflict. Even today, secularism can be revived and thrive if it is sold along with nationalism.
Nationalism is the glue that can sell anything. The RSS would not salute the Indian flag but at some point it started doing so. It realised how Hindutva and Indian nationalism can be easily fused. To prevent another Babri Masjid demolition, we have to revive secularism as a mass ideology and that can be done through nationalism. Jai Hind.
6. Use religion and culture for inclusion
Going to a temple to pray is not ‘Hindutva’, not even ‘soft Hindutva’. It is just being Hindu, plain and simple. Religion is a part of our culture. By using religion as culture, the Congress and other opposition parties can re-establish a mass connect. Mahatma Gandhi held inter-faith prayers. He discussed the Bhagavad Gita. Yet, he was so ‘secular’ that a majoritarian fanatic assassinated him.
Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits were a step in the right direction. How do you label a man as anti-Hindu when he goes to temples and puts on a tilak? The problem is when Rahul Gandhi stops doing it once the election is over. The BJP does these things consistently because it understands that political connect with the masses is an ongoing process, not something you do only on election eve.
Similarly, opposition parties need to learn from the BJP how to use popular culture and cultural symbols to have greater influence on society. If not from the BJP, they could draw the same lessons from Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. Folk music, street theatre, Sufi and Bhakti traditions, Kabir and Mirabai — culture is politics.
7. Shift the Overton Window
The BJP makes unthinkable ideas real in a matter of decades, if not years. These ideas are first proposed by a radical ‘fringe’ and are normalised by sheer repetition. This process is the shifting of the ‘Overton Window’.
For the secular parties, this role of the ideological ‘fringe’ is performed by the much-maligned Left-liberas. And it has to be said — they do their job much better than these pusillanimous ‘secular’ politicians do theirs.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.