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.
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.
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.