File photo of Priyanka Gandhi | Facebook
File photo of Priyanka Gandhi | Facebook
Text Size:

One myth of Indian politics has been the idea that the Congress party stood for secularism. To understand the decline of secularism in India, we have to understand that the Congress party, at least since 1984, has actually not stood up for secularism.

The hallowed ‘idea of the Congress’ as an umbrella coalition of extremes necessarily means that the party always sought to accommodate Left and Right, and so it has always tried to be both communal and secular at the same time. The ambivalence is neither new nor unconscious. This is how the Congress party has always been. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were both populists, and populism is the enemy of ideological commitment. Populism makes you give up your ideology in favour of whatever you think can win votes.

Indira Gandhi had taken to appealing to the Hindu sentiment when she returned to power in 1980, partly to recover lost ground in the Hindi heartland. The Khalistan insurgency also saw her champion the ‘Hindu cause’ against a militant minority.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi was immediately followed by anti-Sikh violence, mostly in Delhi. The role of the Congress party and its workers in this politically motivated violence is well known even if it has gone largely unpunished. Note that the BJP governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have done precious little to bring to justice the top Congress leadership for its role in 1984, because they both unite at the ‘Hindu cause’.

The Congress may defend Rajiv Gandhi’s role in 1984 — some blame then Home Minister Narasimha Rao — but Rao and Rajiv were both Congress. What’s more damning for Rajiv Gandhi is that the 1984 election he contested had a strong majoritarian undertone. And if anything was left to doubt, there is his “when a big tree falls” speech.


Also read: Modi redefined secularism with Ram Mandir as Hindu voters were fed up of Sonia-Left version


That Orwellian year

The 1984 violence made the Congress party lose a moral argument over secularism. The BJP questioned the Congress party’s moral authority in questioning it about the 2002 Gujarat riots (or even the violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992), since the Congress’ own hands were covered in blood.

The story of the fall of secularism had just begun. The events are well-known, but their telling in the liberal narrative is rather too kind to the Congress. We are often told that Rajiv Gandhi made strategic blunders, and it wasn’t even his fault, you know, he just had a bad adviser in Arun Nehru.

The history of the ‘strategic blunders’ tells you the Congress has had no ideological conviction or core. Its commitment to secularism was about as strong as its commitment to playing the Hindu card to win elections.

We are told Rajiv Gandhi merely made a blunder with Shah Bano and to correct it, played another card that backfired — having the gates of the Babri Masjid opened. The joke is that Rajiv Gandhi was the only ‘multi-communal’ politician in Indian history. In a brief five years, he managed to alienate Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike.

Rajiv Gandhi doesn’t get enough approbation for his decisive role in the fall of Indian secularism because of his tragic assassination. When he had the gates of the Babri Masjid opened, it wasn’t so much a capitulation to rising Hindu nationalism as it was cunning connivance. Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t merely giving into pressure. He actually thought he could make the most of the opportunity.

“To combat the BJP, the Rajiv Gandhi administration attempted rather openly to buy into the momentum of Hindu communalism building up in north India,” Thomas Blom Hansen wrote in his 1999 book The Saffron Wave. Further, “In September 1989, the government allowed the VHP to undertake the Ram Shila Puja, a nationwide procession of consecrated bricks collected from all over the country for the construction of a large Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. The government also declared the plot adjacent to the Babri Masjid to be ‘undisputed land,’ which amounted to a thinly veiled invitation to the VHP to begin construction of a Ram temple on this plot. Six days later the government attempted to accommodate Muslim protests by ordering the VHP to stop the construction work.”

In the 1980s, the face of Hindu majoritarian politics was not the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which was struggling to find the right political language for votes. Until 1984, it tried a moderate strategy and when that didn’t work, the BJP drifted towards a more openly Hindutva appeal to voters. The face of the Hindu majoritarian project was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and even its interventions could not make the Babri dispute look anything more than a legal battle. It was Rajiv Gandhi who made it a mainstream political issue in national politics with an eye on votes. That is when the BJP shed its inhibitions and decided to make Ram Janmabhoomi its central election campaign too, and the Mandir, its central project.

As Amit Shah would say, aap chronology samajhiye. First came the opening of the gates in 1986, then came the BJP’s Palampur resolution in 1989 making Ram Mandir a central project.


Also read: BJP vs opposition is just like Coke vs Pepsi. Catch-up Hindutva won’t work


What if Rajiv Gandhi had succeeded?

The Hindu majoritarian project was rising in the 1980s, but Rajiv Gandhi gave it speed and velocity. He famously started his 1989 election campaign from Faizabad, promising to bring Ram Rajya. As V.P. Singh waged the Bofors campaign against Rajiv Gandhi, his answer was Hindu identity. The BJP and the Congress argued about the right solution to the Babri problem. Rajiv Gandhi wanted to allow temple going, and a new temple just beside the mosque. But once you ride the tiger, you don’t control it. The BJP went a step ahead and promised a more radical idea: Mandir wahin banayenge. The temple will be built upon the mosque.

In the 1989 election, the big question was whether the controversy would benefit the BJP or the Congress. A Times of India reporter named Chandan Mitra went around the villages of Uttar Pradesh asking voters, and found that people thought it would benefit the Congress. We know that the Congress actually did not benefit from it. In Uttar Pradesh itself, the Congress won only three seats. The BJP won only eight. V.P. Singh’s Janata dal won 54 seats from the state, the largest, helping make him Prime Minister. People had voted for good governance, not a temple.

But what if Rajiv Gandhi’s ploy had succeeded? What if voters had listened to his call for Ram Rajya? Would the Congress party claim to be committed to secularism after that?

Rajiv Gandhi should have found a new issue to deflect away from both Bofors and Mandir. V.P. Singh did just that: Mandal. Soon the BJP withdrew support from the V.P. Singh government, and Chandra Shekhar became prime minister with Congress support. A new book by British historian Roderick Matthews has revealed that Chandra Shekhar had a plan to settle the Babri dispute but “petty” Rajiv Gandhi withdrew support from the government because he didn’t want Chandra Shekhar to take credit for solving a problem created by him.


Also read: There is no such thing as ‘soft Hindutva’


Secularism ka chowkidar chor hai

The role of P.V. Narasimha Rao in the Babri Masjid demolition is also well known. He conveniently looked the other way. He blamed Rajiv Gandhi and others in a book on the subject, but just like 1984, it is really a pedantic debate whether Narasimha Rao was to blame or Rajiv Gandhi. The truth is that at every step from 1986 onwards, the Congress party played the role of an enabler. The Congress didn’t carry out the rath yatra that ended in the demolition of the mosque. But it played the truant gatekeeper — the chowkidar of secularism turned out to be a chor. From opening the gates to looking the other way when the demolition was happening, to ensuring the masterminds of the demolition are not brought to justice, to delaying a law against communal riots in UPA-1, to not bringing the perpetrators of the Gujarat 2002 violence to justice.

Not to forget, in the 1980s, the Congress also played the Hindu card against the ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam and first tinkered with citizenship laws, starting a chain of processes leading up to the NPR-NRC-CAA mess the BJP is creating today.

When Congress leaders today demand credit for the Ram Mandir, they are right. The Congress played an important role in the destruction of the mosque, and Indian secularism. When Priyanka Gandhi hails the mandir without even paying lip service to the injustice of the demolition and the accompanying wave of anti-Muslim violence, she is proving that she is Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter, and has learnt nothing from her father’s mistakes.

Imagining a new project of reviving Indian pluralism needs, as a first condition, the annihilation of the Congress party, the durbaris in the court of majoritarian politics.

To confront an unapologetically majoritarian BJP establishment, India needs a national opposition party that unapologetically believes in secularism and is willing to find a new electoral language for it — just as the BJP managed to find an electoral language for Hindutva after decades of trial and error.

The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

41 COMMENTS

  1. Congress has been a pathetic pretender to the the secularism ethos. Indian accommodation and tolerance of other religious faiths did not, does not and will not need Congress support. It is like the doll in the temple tower believing that it is holding up the tower. Reality is different. Congress is an undemocratic edifice with an unworthy aristocracy at the top held up by sycophantic family loyalists, with no principles except to feather their own nests. The party has proved that it will resort to corruption and coalition dharma to cling on to power at the cost of the unbelievably poor Indian on the street. The party deserves to be destroyed utterly and completely.

  2. This dude can’t find anything else to write except Hindu bashing.
    Perhaps he can form a group to reconstruct the mosque.

  3. There is certainly a need to revive INC. A credible opposition is necessary for the success of democracy in India. However, the party has to shed the dynasty. Culture and become a true democratic party. And for this to happen, the durbaris have to be purged first. Darbaris are the people who are slowly killing the party to keep dynasty afloat. Without darbaris there won’t be darbar. I sometimes wonder why some talented leaders in INC even tolerate such incompetence in leadership.

  4. the biggest mistake you have not underlined, accepting the partition of India on the basis of religion. Having separate personal law for Muslims, providing financial support to islamic religious organisations like Madarsas, Mosques, Urdu teachers etc.

  5. India is now a true democracy ruled by majority. A handful of crooks who had fooled Indian people that a democracy should be ruled by minority crooks are now helpless as India’s majority has claimed their right to rule in a democracy. Pro minority crooks can keep weeping, crying, abusing and accusing the majority but they have nothing better to offer except corruption and family rule. Hindus have learnt it the hard way that RSS is the future of India and not the minority of librandu crooks.

  6. The writer and others have to realise that, as long as Hindus are a majority in this country, Secularism will never be dead…. because Hindus by default are secular…. as can be gauged by the shelter given by the hindu kings to all oppressed faiths, right across 1000’s of years….Today we are a multi faith country, precisely because of this…..I am sure this would not be the India, if this were a muslim majority or even a christian majority country…. But yes Secularism will not be that defined by the leftists or the western educated folks…. it will be as defined by us…Presence of religion, but equal respect to all religions, as shown by us since times past….. So they need not be afraid of Hindu majoritarianism…..

  7. RG attempted to bring the controversial issues to the fore and to the center of public debate. This is the right approach. Secularism can have exceptions. Exceptions have to be communicated without obfuscation. Ram mandir in ayodhya cannot be treated as hindu appeasment. It is a reasonable demand. Secularism would have only strengthened if it was done through mandir bill rather than a mandir judgment. Mandir judgment was a total obfuscation.

    RG tried his hand at conveying some reasonable exception and take it out of the judicial purview and into the political domain.

    • RG thought he can run with the Hare and hunt with the Tiger. Fell flat , broke his jaw. Congress was never secular. If it was,then Hindu temples would not ve under Govt.control, their funds being used for other religions.Other Religions going Scot free. It will never realise the damage it has done.

  8. It’s not followers of Congress who are destroying mosques, lynchings Muslims, pushing a fake Hindu history and creating a crazy Hindu Rashtra, its Modi/RSS thugs.
    For secularism to rule, Hindutva led by BJP/RSS must be destroyed!

  9. And meanwhile till Shivam uncle and other lefties find such a “national party that unapologetically believes in secularism”, let us all continue voting for Modi chacha. By the time Shivam is done finding such a party, Chachaji will have completed his project of whatever the hell he is trying to do. No country, no democracy, no party and no secularism will be needed. The right-wing guys should recommend the govt to confer a Padma award on the genius opinion writer Mr. Shivam Vij for making their job easier of discrediting the opposition.

    • Beutifully put. Secularism of congress isn’t flawed. Nationalism is on steroids under current dispensation. This came about by unrelenting work of RSS for decades in building public opinion about congress being sympathetic towards minorities for their votes. Also the minorities weren’t helpful in trying bring about changes in their society. Especially, their love of pak cricket team and not yielding in the ram mandir case. It’s not the congress but the idea of secularism which is weak/dead today and for which minorities also have equal role as the majority.
      For ‘secular’ proponents, Congress losing to vajpayee bjp is far better than congress losing to current duo. Because, mandir in ayodhya is not death of secularism. Even congress did the shilanyas. Tweaking citizenship is non-secular in all capital letters.

  10. Reclaiming Indian pluralism will need annihilation of the Congress party

    Shivam Vij 19 August, 2020 6:37 pm IST
    There other leftists masquerading as SUPER SECULARISTS–many of them products of universities like JNU . What action do you suggest for them ? Please note imposing a rotten and failed ideology is misuse of freedom of speech.

  11. Learn what Secularism is, not the Sickularism of the Left. Why should Christian and Moslem religious structures stand over Hindu religious spots. Because they were evil genociding bigots and mass converted many Indians through the sword and coercion, thus what Jesus Allah ordered cannot be undone. Christians and Moslems have built there monuments over Aztec Jewish and Chinese religious structures, this is their history. Now, some say Hindu’s should just accept it, but isn’t that an injustice. The Status Quo of Nehruvian Secularism was unfair to Hindus. Hindus had been oppressed by Moslems and Christians for centuries, of course, some balance in favor of Hindus was needed, just as Black slaves in America needed special laws to catch up to Whites in US. Reality is if Nehru had allowed just Hindu demands regarding temples and true quality between religions, ie a common civil code, then much grief would be over. Even now it is better for the BJP to just confiscate and hand over to Hindus their just sites, and to pull the bandage off in one quick pull.

  12. Mr Viz , can you please explain and define, what is actually meant by so-called Secularism, for India, does it mean, No Special minority treatment like, Madrasa funding, Minority Muslim and Christian universities paid by the Indian government and special Haj pilgrimage Subsidy and special law for Muslims and Christians?? then Indian Minoritys will label it as communal and kick secularism out, the real meaning of secularism in India is Muslims and Christian appeasement and Anti-Hindu laws, but nobody got the guts to say that openly, so all secular and Liberals use the word Secularism, but they want special treatment for Muslims and Christians in India, who made Pakistan and Bangladesh?? Indian Muslims demanded Islamic nation Pakistan but they do not want to go, as they do not want to lose their properties and wealth, with Nehru and Gandhi in power , they know their position is going to be stronger than before., and why nobody in the world asks to be secular in Muslim majority countries?/why only in non-Muslim majority countries.

  13. Maybe Pappu G can make a video on this topic? His fake tan, curly hair and vacant look will look very convincing.

  14. “Shoe I am “you STUPIDO. WE ARE SECULAR.

    1) When there were riots in DELHI AND BANGALORE based on rumours. We didn’t blame the rioters. We called them ” victims ”

    2) We abandoned Hindus from all caste and supported
    ” secular votes ” during recent riots in BANGALORE.

    3) AREN’T YOU AWARE OF OUR SUBMISSION IN COURT BY “COUPIL SHIBEL” on what we think of SHRI RAM.

    4) We have always supported and promoted proselytizers. We will continue to do that once we are back in power.

    5) Remember common PEOPLE using social media is exposing fake paid journalist. Hence we are starting campaign against American apps which will make Chinese donors HAPPY.

    6) Last but not least MAMMAMIA!!!!

  15. After spending the whole article talking about the death of secularism, the author writes “Imagining a new project of reviving Indian pluralism needs, as a first condition, the annihilation of the Congress party, .”

    Ah, there is the rub. Secularism is not pluralism. Rigid and sectarian secularism, as practiced in India, must die so pluralism may flourish. Pluralism is central to the Hindu, that is Indian, ethos. The BJP is helping rejuvenate the core of Indian civilizational values; that is why it is popular. It is not an electoral language or strategy. New India is able to rise after a thousand years of invasions and deliberate distortions and active denigration (for example, constructing mosques by destroying temples) because India’s pre-Bronze Age civilizational values are eternal.

  16. Secularism is a bogus concept for India. The word was smuggled into the constitution under the darkness of emergency. Irrespective of what the constitution says, India will treat its minorities well only as long as the indic faiths are overwhelmingly dominant. The moment the abrahamic faiths become a majority, the indic faiths will be massacred or converted into oblivion. We are already seeing the seeds of a civil war being sown by an abrahamic faith – only a fool will think of Delhi and bengaluru riots as being unconnected.

  17. Spot on analysis by shivam,Congress fell into trap which it laid for other. Congress will have to come clean about its ideology if it seeks itself for resurrection.

  18. The swinging political opinion of the author of this piece is like a whiplash. A mere five days ago he was giving Congress a very broad game plan to defeat the BJP and now he is saying that the Congress party must be annihilated. Make up your mind!

  19. Meaningless and hollow phrases like “idea of Congress” are just that. Devoid of any meaning both to the common voter and the “educated and thinking” voter.
    These lofty phrases sound good only in a Rahul G video and go nicely with the curly hair and fake skin tan!!
    All very lofty, loose and laughable – just like the Congress and its silly “leaders”.

  20. How rats are leaving the sinking ship . First Guha now Vij. Sorry boys. All that is proven is indians want a Hindu country. And every mass political leadership has known this

    • Just because they are criticizing Congress doesn’t mean that they are supporters of the BJP. They are criticizing the party for its incompetence and lack of a narrative. And just look at the condition of countries that are a ‘religious’ state before wishing the same fate for India.

  21. The Indian society is already riven with regional identity, caste, language, reservation, demography, economic opportunity and the last but not the least religion. All the above, except religion divide the society into much smaller groups which though are equally emotive, they lack the momentum due to the lack of scale. In rare outbursts, certain events jolt the Indian consciousness (Nirbhaya case, Lokpal movement) to react and these have forced the governments to react and bring in change.
    The only other sense that is latent in each Indian national is a growing sense of identity of nationalism. While this has many ideological connotations, one thing is clear, the average Indian is very aware of their global identity and also of its borders. Accordingly, there has been a counter narrative to the carefully constructed ideologies of the era immediately post independence, spearheaded by the very generation that were taught by the post independence generation. The rapid unraveling of the narrative as woven by the Congress has been hastened by the probing nature of social media. Today the very fabric of democracy has changed and the politics around it has not kept pace. Today I can tweet a message to the PM of this country, I don’t need to sift through the entangled web of bureaucracy. Today the nature of democracy is ‘direct’. If I have a view I can address it directly to the institution or person and expect a resolution. Today democracy is more involved, closer and by contrast uglier too. Gone are the days of ‘representative’ democracy, where I had to wait for the elected representative to make their appearance or send in petitions. Today I am more empowered.
    In this scenario of ‘direct’ democracy, secularism too has morphed. Secularism has changed its shade, from appeasement to equal opportunity, from love to tolerance, from bottled up frustrations to rabid rants on social media. The debate should not be on the death of secularism (it has not), it should be on how the idea of secularism has changed. India and Indians are secular by nature, irrespective of their religion. Attempts by parties to pigeon hole the society will come to naught. The election victories of the BJP are not evidence of polarised society but that of a society that is voting for a party that is seen to achieve development goals. It takes a different vision to stand up on the ramparts of the Red Fort and talk about providing a toilet for every Indian, talk about providing sanitary pads for women, talk about the vision the leadership of this country has for India. None of the talk is centered around religion or division based on religion. If anything it has been about improving the collective, irrespective of the religion.
    The idea that Hindutva is the driving force that gets BJP to power, is a falacy, driven by a polity that refuses to understand that the new India has moved on from its 60 yrs of vote-bank politics and is now seeking change in the status quo. The opposition that can actually divine a better vision of India will be the one that will triumph and not one that looks at secularism from the prism of representative democracy. The BJP thus far has never challenged the secularism of the average Indian, but it has certainly challenged the entitled nature of our polity and society. India is secular and will always be, because when I introspect, I feel no hate, I feel nothing that makes me fell concerned my country. Bring me a better vision for India, and I will show you the next government.

  22. Secularism is over hyped. So is socialism. The first republic build on these pillars must die for the second republic to be born.

    The historic role of Congress(i) is make sure the first republic is destroyed. It will be around till its destiny is fulfilled.

  23. Dude, last week you were giving Congress tips on how to defeat the BJP in 2024. Today you want the Congress to be ‘annhilated’. Why don’t you take some time off from opinion-writing and make up your mind?

  24. The intellectual dishonesty of the Indian liberal English writer knows no limits. The writing was on the wall, the congress party has always been communal. Was this not the accusation of Jinah? Secularism was just a façade. It was just a matter of time when the invisible spots became visible. Some of us knew this from the get go. It is just that the Congress party instead of muslim appeasement, moved to Hindu card for a while. Then it switched again. The liberal media has painted the Congress party as secular and done a disservice to India at large. I am waiting for the liberals and the media to put their hands up and own this. It is their job to inform. They have failed. I would like to see Shivam realize this. Shivam and his friends have lost their credibility as a result of this kind of misinformation and hypocrisy. This is exactly why they are called sickular prestitutes. Better late than never to realize one’s fallacies.

  25. Well said about the existing Congress. However what India may need is a new Congress – a broad platform with many trends accommodated like the original one from early twentieth century. And a Gandhi who is not also a Nehru.

  26. If anything, this article displays the intellectual dishonesty of Shivam Vij and the liberal English media at large. When many of us saw Congress was not secular, it was constantly touted as a secular party. It was extremely convenient then. With the rise of BJP and the self proclaimed liberati is opening its eyes to the 1984 riots, the Shah Bano, the Ram Mandir to see they were wrong. Looks like Shivam has finally come to realize the fallacy. The congress has never been secular.. I will wait a few more years for another intellectual dishonesty of calling Indian constitution secular to come down. The veil will eventually be lifted from these misguided views.

  27. Views expressed on India needs a national opposition party are correct. With the presence of strong opposition only the incumbents works in definite mode. However, the present Congress durbaris are not the right answer which didn’t do much other than criticizing Modi-Shah. Rather they should get engaged in parliament debates and make the public aware. Hating Modi-Shah will always backfire.

  28. The headline is enough. India needs someone to occupy the US equivalent of the Democrats. The Congress no longer fits that bill. Someone needs to fill that space. In short, India needs the Democrats here.

    • Secularism and Congress? Joke. Apart from all the instances listed by Shivam, 1990 Kashmiri Pandit genicude and exodus and Congress keeping quiet proves that not just conngress,but all political parties, liberals, intellectuals were and are not secular. Why just them, even the minority religions and the International community was never interested in pluralism,secularism.

Comments are closed.