The Congress guest list had Muslim liberals, left-of-centre intellectuals and professionals. But there were no Muslim conservatives with contrarian views.
After a spate of temple visits, Rahul Gandhi’s move to court the Muslim intelligentsia is welcome, but purely in terms of electoral strategy, Rahul’s Wednesday initiative lacked clarity and a sense of purpose ahead of 2019.
Engaging with the Muslim voter bloc is a good idea after his recent temple runs, but deletion of clergy and those with deep roots in society is inexplicable.
The guest list was packed with liberals, left-of-centre intellectuals and professionals who have a common agenda of deep hatred towards the ruling NDA, sympathy towards the Nehru-Gandhi family and focus on the social left (welfare measures). There was little scope for contrarian views or showing a mirror to the Congress leadership.
On the face of it, strengthening liberal, moderate and modern views of a community is good. But for a political party that is keen to get as many votes as possible in 2019, ignoring or alienating conservative sections of a community isn’t smart politics.
The pressures on the Congress party is enormous.
There is concern (sometimes exaggerated) within the Muslim community over the growing cult of majoritarian power: a sharp decline in elected representation of Muslims from panchayats to Parliament, and the disturbing trend of lynching and cow vigilantism are some.
But there are also enough voices that caution against turning the 2019 general elections into an 80 per cent vs 20 per cent contest. These apprehensions were floated after Sonia Gandhi remarked in Mumbai that the BJP had managed to “convince” people that the Congress was a “Muslim party”. She wanted to justify why Rahul Gandhi was visiting various Hindu temples.
The fact is that Indian Muslims accord great importance to faith. That is the reason why the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) was able to collect crores of signatures against outlawing instant triple talaq, parade over a million burqa-clad women on the streets and informally dissuade Manmohan Singh-led UPA to not scrap Section 377. The Congress has failed to take a clear position on issues like the presence of Mohammad Ali Jinnah portrait at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), its support for the continuation of ‘internal quota’ in professional seats in the AMU, Jamia and other minority-run institutions.
Of course, much of the confusion over these issues begin at the Congress’ doorsteps where its governments deliberately left them unresolved. For instance, government files would not describe AMU as a minority institution but say, “believed to be formed by Muslims in India”. There is no explanation why successive Congress regimes failed to reform or amend the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 to address contentious issues like alimony, polygamy and the age of consent.
Even on the issue of continuation and expansion of Darul Qaza (informal Muslim family courts), the Congress’ stand remains ambiguous. While its minister for minorities affairs in Karnataka has justified and welcomed it, the central Congress leadership has chosen to be silent although it could have marshalled several arguments in its favour and why it allowed it to thrive for decades. Pathetically, the grand old party is not even in a position to say that in a dynamic society, socio-religious reforms must come from within the community, fearing political damaging. This ostrich-like approach will leave the Congress neither here nor there.
The Muslim chargesheet against the Congress is rather long.
The UPA commissioned and produced the Sachar Commission Report indicating poor socio-economic conditions but did precious little to improve the situation. Between 1967 and 2002, when the Congress was mostly in power, 58 major communal riots took place where several thousands lost their lives. Most culprits from Jabalpur, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Bhiwandi, Moradabad, and Malyana went scot-free. In December 2006, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said minorities, particularly Muslims, have the first claim on national resources, but throughout the UPA rule Muslims continued to be in the negative list in terms of getting loans from PSU banks.
The Congress party machinery has remained a mute spectator in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and other places each time a lynching incident took place. No legal aid was extended to the victims, and there was no Congress Seva Dal or the in-house Sadhbhavana ki Sipahi expressing solidarity or marching towards the district collector’s office. What we got instead was the issuance of press releases, TV statements and tweets.
The present-day Congress leadership is eager to win any and every election. To achieve this feat, it wants to compete with the BJP in courting the majority community. At the same time, it does not want the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati to be the champions of minority rights. But the Congress is falling between the two stools when it comes to the Muslims.
Rahul would be better off learning from Rajiv Gandhi on how he had handled the Shah Bano case. He got a lot of flak but Rajiv first welcomed the judgment and then began hearing the Muslim ulemas who felt that the judgment was in conflict with the Sharia. Even as Rajiv dithered, 125 prominent Muslims – liberals and those subscribing to the left-of-the centre ideology signed a memorandum asking Rajiv to not change Section 125 of the CrPC and insisted that the right of divorced Muslim women to claim maintenance from their husband and former husbands be preserved. Some of these signatories were Prof. Rais Ahmad, Ali Sardar Jafri, Abid Husain, Prof. Irfan Habib, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Prof. Moonis Raza, Prof. Rasheeduddin Khan, Badruddin Tyabji, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and Saeed Mirza.
Rajiv panicked, having been caught between liberal and conservative sections of Muslims. He finally sided with the clergy and got Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Divorced Women) Bill passed to overturn the Supreme Court verdict. Some elements within the Congress still regret that course of action.
Engaging a community is always welcome but a political cost-analysis is important particularly when crucial general elections are around the corner.
Rasheed Kidwai is an ORF visiting fellow, author and journalist. The views expressed here are his own.
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