The Congress today doesn’t have the guts to question the sedition charge against Kanhaiya Kumar or Mohan Bhagwat’s assertion that India belongs to the Hindus.
There was one question Rahul Gandhi often asked candidates who were seeking tickets to contest elections: “What is Congress?” The objective was to understand whether they were familiar with the ideology, ethos and values that the party enshrined and cherished.
It’s high time the Congress president asked the same question to himself. The 134-year-old party today looks totally confused about its ideological moorings and political tactics, and the BJP is making the best of it.
Look at the Congress’ dilemma over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which is envisaged to give Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants — Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In the old days, before the self-proclaimed ‘janeudhari’ Dattatreya Brahmin took over its reins, the party would have hit the streets against the bill, which seeks to discriminate on the grounds of religion by keeping Muslims out. Also, it violates the Assam Accord, signed by Rajiv Gandhi, by extending the cut-off date by over four decades. But religion is not the reason for protests against the bill in Assam and other states — it’s linguistic, cultural and economic.
The Congress of yore would have seized the opportunity to try and win back the trust of the Assamese, notwithstanding its implications for the party MP from Silchar, Sushmita Dev; there are a large number of Bengali-speaking immigrants in her constituency in Barak Valley.
The BJP is risking the wrath of its allies in the northeast because the anti-Muslim narrative (built around Bangladeshi infiltrators or ‘termites’ as Amit Shah prefers to call them) suits its national electoral strategy. But the Congress is coy about the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill even as it stages token protests. The opposition party staged a walkout in the Lok Sabha when the bill came up for passage, but didn’t vote against the bill because it didn’t want to be portrayed as a party speaking for Muslim immigrants.
Trust the BJP to make it worse for the Congress by pushing for the bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha in the current session of Parliament. It’s a win-win situation for the BJP. If the Congress and other opposition parties stall it — which the BJP would also hope for, so as to pacify its allies in the Northeast — the ruling will get the ‘I-told-you-so’ moment to attack the Congress for appeasing the Muslims. And if the Congress lets the bill pass, it’s a victory for the BJP anyway.
It’s the same case with the triple talaq bill, which has left the Congress discredited on both sides, with conservative Muslims fuming over its token opposition and walkout in the Lok Sabha before voting, and their Hindu brethren watching the party’s ‘pro-Muslim’ act of stalling the bill in the Rajya Sabha in the last winter session.
Rahul is emulating Rajiv
These two bills are just two of many instances in which the Congress has found itself cornered by the BJP. Rahul Gandhi is consciously or inadvertently emulating his late father Rajiv Gandhi, who had sought to appease zealots among both Muslims and Hindus — first by nullifying the court’s ruling in the Shah Bano case, and then opening the gates of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya — and ended up losing both.
Look at the Congress’ forked response to the political crisis arising out of the court ruling for women’s entry into Sabarimala temple. The BJP lapped it up and got its workers on the streets to protest and mobilise the Hindus. The Congress’ response was so typical. It first waited and watched the BJP take the political initiative. The local Congress unit soon took the BJP line and opposed the entry of women in the temple, while the central leadership looked away.
It was an opportunity for the Congress to lead the liberal debate and use the Sabarimala issue to puncture the BJP’s tall talk about gender justice nationally, but Rahul Gandhi developed cold feet and soon became a defender of faith overnight. The result: the Congress may have lost a large section of its Hindu followers to the BJP and the minorities to the Left.
The party has been equally non-committal on the issue of the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, conveniently citing the sub-judice nature of the case. It’s only a matter of time before the BJP decides to turn the heat up on Ayodhya and test the political mettle of Shiv-bhakt Gandhi.
Not just religious matters
It’s not just in matters of religious polarisation that the Congress ties itself into knots. The NDA government’s poll gambit of 10 per cent reservation for general category candidates in government jobs and educational institutions saw the Congress fumbling for a response. It ended up losing the trust of both sides — of the upper castes by its attack on the government for introducing this, and of SCs, STs and OBCs, who already get reservation, by its grudging support to the enabling legislation.
In February 2016, Gandhi had visited the JNU campus to extend support to students protesting against the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar. Cut to 2018, the Congress president chooses to look the other way as Kanhaiya is chargesheeted in the sedition case. Last week, the Congress invited Kanhaiya to participate in a party event in Delhi but withdrew the invite at the eleventh hour.
Name any big issue in the last four-and-a-half years, and you would find the Congress licking its self-inflicted wounds: Be it the surgical strike on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, GST, or the JNU sedition case.
Crisis of conviction
How is it that the grand old party of India finds itself on the back foot on every big occasion? Driven to the wall by the BJP, Congress leaders are facing a crisis of conviction. They wear secularism on their sleeves and condemn the BJP’s ‘majoritarian’ political philosophy. And that’s why the party pretended not to hear when Amit Shah dared Rahul Gandhi Saturday to come clean on the Ram temple.
Yet, desperate to get rid of the pro-minority tag, Gandhi would prefer wearing a tika and prayer beads to a skull cap today. A party that led the Independence movement doesn’t have the guts to question the sedition charge against Kanhaiya or to question RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat when he declared at the Kumbh Saturday that India belongs to the Hindus.
And that’s why before he hits the campaign trail Rahul Gandhi should first find an answer to his own question: What’s Congress?