Rahul Gandhi’s speech at a Jaipur rally recently opened the debate on ‘Hindu Congress’ Vs ‘Hindutva BJP’. He said that while Hinduism is for satya, Hindutva seeks satta. This Hindu ideology of Rahul Gandhi did not come out of the blue. The initiator of this idea is a fellow Congressman, Shashi Tharoor, who wrote the book Why I Am A Hindu in 2018. The narrative was continued by P. Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh, who in their writings and speeches have said that ‘they are Hindu and not Hindutvawadis. Hinduism that they believe is opposite of Hindutva of Modi. They are two most visible foreign-educated intellectual politicians.
Earlier, these leaders were shy of associating themselves with the ‘Hindu’ narrative and projected themselves as Nehruvian secularists. Now Rahul and even Priyanka Gandhi are making rounds of temples, projecting themselves as sacred Hindu Brahmins.
All this is happening when Narendra Modi, who declared himself as an OBC, is India’s prime minister. In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Modi, as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, projected himself as the most powerful anti-Congress, Hindutva leader with the slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.
Modi has left the Congress confused by appropriating Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and subtly owning Ambedkar’s legacy. Both were neglected by the Congress. His anti-Congress and anti-Muslim image is different from that of Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The pre-2014 Congress never anticipated an OBC leader, who was attacked not only in India but globally for his handling of Gujarat violence in 2002, winning a national election with a full majority. Vajpayee and Advani would have never won a national election with a full majority. BJP under their leadership never won a Lok Sabha election with full majority. Modi presenting himself as an OBC played a decisive role. The Congress knows this. In my view, he would not have won like that if he were to be a Hindutva Brahmin.
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Where Congress went wrong
Modi wouldn’t have become PM had the Congress not neglected the Shudras/OBCs for almost four decades and hanged around the Dwija/Muslim/Dalit vote base. Modi and his team, who were backed by capital, understood the anger of the Shudra/OBCs, who had remained visibly absent from Delhi’s power corridors during the UPA regime. They turned the Hindutva agenda into a Shudras/OBC agenda. Though it created tension among the followers of RSS’ sanatan Hindutva, the Sangh Parivar had to go with Modi and his team because he brought them power in Delhi, unlike never before.
The ‘Hinduism vs Hindutva’ ideologues in Congress are not vote-pullers, but they will eye key positions in the government once the Nehru-Gandhi family brings the party back to power. Ten years ago, the UPA government was run by these very leaders and they didn’t allow any Mandal OBC ideologue to share power. Leaders like Shashi Tharoor, who see India through a “cattle-class” lens, would not spare even a page in their book on Hinduism for OBC/Dalit/Adivasis or deliberate on the status of the oppressed or explore the issue of untouchability. It is this psyche of the Congress leaders that drove the Shudras/OBCs into the Modi fold.
Rahul Gandhi must explain to the nation the framework of his Hinduism that Congress plans to project against the BJP’s ‘Hindutva of satta’. After Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi debated on Hindu reforms during the freedom struggle, the Congress forgot to engage with such questions on Hinduism. The RSS/BJP Hindutva believe in Sanatan Hinduism and politicisation of religion as an anti-minority vote mobiliser.
If the Congress is not Hindutva but ‘Hindu’ of Shashi Tharoor mode, Shudras/OBCs cannot and will not support the party. The caste oppression within Hinduism and the Dwija control over institutions is not acceptable to them in post-Mandal India. As of now, the Congress ideologues have not shown any new wisdom in convincing the Shudras/OBCs that they and the party stand for caste inclusiveness in Hinduism and against issues like temple priesthood being exclusive to Brahmins, untouchability and graded inequality within the civil society. The Congress is mainly run by Dwijas and some Muslim leaders. The temple system was under state governments when the Congress was ruling for decades. They have not taken any initiative to make Hinduism inclusive. They have no clear stand on the caste census. What new path will the Congress show now to the country?
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The deeper problem
If the Congress gives up its Nehruvian secularism, which remained silent on religious questions, what is the new Hindu course it will take?
The Left-liberal intellectuals, who were controlling many State institutions during the Congress rule, also took advantage of this silent ‘Hindu operation’ in the name of secularism, not allowing any OBC/Dalit/Adivasis to take centre stage. This background helped Modi project an aggressive Hindutva posture.
Farmers’ struggle, price rise, and the pandemic have caused a crisis in the prime minister’s constituency. But the Congress has failed to mobilise this vote in its favour in the absence of any inclusive strategies.
Mere rhetoric of ‘Hinduism vs Hindutva’ does not solve the problem of OBC/Dalit/Adivasi alienation by the Congress. There is a deeper problem in the party’s national leadership composition. Elite academic discourse does not change the ground situation in favour of the organisation. The strategists sitting in Delhi do not allow new social forces to breed leaders from the oppressed caste and communities.
Today, India needs a leadership similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s — stubborn yet selfless and capable of mass mobilisation. Rahul Gandhi should not think of the prime minister’s position. The leaders around him want to become ministers again. But the Shudras/OBCs today will not accept such a dispensation. If Rahul Gandhi wants to reposition the Congress through ‘Hindu’ means, he must spell out his agenda of reform of the religion and his party.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His most known books are Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, and Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)