File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi during in New Delhi, 2017 | Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi | Getty Images
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Rahul Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sam Pitroda – they are all trying to help the BJP with communal polarisation. 

Even the most rabid religious fundamentalist has multiple identities. A person may be a religious Hindu and a political Hindutva nationalist, and at the same time have other identities such as caste, class and profession. 

A Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) volunteer in Uttar Pradesh could also be a Brahmin upset with the domination of Thakurs under the Yogi Adityanath regime. He could also be a large farmer upset with the Modi government’s indifference towards declining incomes of agriculturists, never mind the recent increase in Minimum Support Prices. 

It is obvious that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) will remind such a voter before elections of his Hindu identity. It will tell him that the other options he has are all pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. It will try to make the emotional Hindu-Muslim divide the main agenda through which he will perceive this election. In the process, it will make him forget other identities, such as that of his caste and profession.

Starting from Rajiv Gandhi’s era in the late ‘80s, the Congress has been falling into the BJP’s Hindutva trap. The Congress bungled up on issues both Hindu and Muslim. In a country with a Hindu majority and a first-past-the-post electoral system, the BJP was bound to benefit.

Any serious challenge to the BJP came from the non-Congress socialist parties. It was people like V.P. Singh, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav who realised that caste identity could counter the BJP’s appeal to religious identity. As recently as the Bihar assembly election in 2015, the BJP tried to polarise voters along Hindu-Muslim lines using the issue of beef. But the Nitish-Lalu alliance worked on another polarisation, backward versus forward castes, to change the social agenda of the election. 

Repeating history

Having made this mistake over and over again, the Congress party refuses to learn from it. Having seen the socialist parties repeatedly benefit from the strategy of changing the agenda, the Congress refuses to learn from it. The Congress party refuses to learn.

Yes, going to temples and asserting that they are Hindu not Hindutva is a good idea. Given the BJP has labelled the Congress as an anti-Hindu party, it is useful for the Congress to assert that its Hindu members are indeed Hindu. Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits are helpful because if nothing else, they counter the pro-Muslim image created by political iftars.

But if the Congress was to make religious identity a major part of its pitch, it can only lose because that is the BJP’s agenda. You can’t win elections by helping the BJP in its agenda. A debate over good Hindu and bad Hindu, good Muslim and bad Muslim, secularism and communalism is precisely what the BJP wants. 

Facing double anti-incumbency in most of India, what could be better for the BJP than to shift the national political agenda from questioning its governance to questioning its religious agenda? 

‘Party of Muslims’

On 11 July, in a meeting with a group of intellectuals from the Muslim community, Rahul Gandhi is said to have assured them that Muslims will feel safe again once the Congress comes to power. 

The key word here is power. How will the Congress come to power? By changing the narrative from religion to other things such as caste, governance, unemployment, and violence against Dalits. Only through these the Congress can come to power and give better security to Muslims. 

Many Muslims themselves understand this better than the Congress. Historian S.I. Habib (not to be confused with Irfan Habib of Aligarh) is reported to have said at the same meeting that the Congress should raise issues that matter to everyone and not just Muslims. It is only the Khan Market liberals who get upset about this line of argument.

Knowing very well that such an event could be exploited by the BJP, Rahul could have organised a meeting of intellectuals from all religious minorities. Whether or not Rahul said that the Congress was a party of Muslims is disputed by people who attended the meeting. 

Perhaps, this was an unintended mistake caused by Rahul’s typical poor planning and absent-mindedness. But how does one explain Shashi Tharoor? Even after his party cautioned him to be careful about the use of words in taking on the BJP, Tharoor is going on and on about “Hindu Pakistan”. It is as if Tharoor wants to be the new Mani Shankar Aiyar, and lo and behold, the fellow Stephanian has written an article supporting Tharoor.

Temple versus jobs

Not to be left behind, Rajiv Gandhi’s friend Sam Pitroda has made a similar self-goal. Speaking in Gandhinagar, the head of the overseas chapter of the Congress said that temples weren’t going to create jobs. Factually correct, of course, but what is the message to religious Hindus? The message is that Pitroda and his party deride temple-going, even as Rahul does so himself before every election. 

“When I hear all the debates in this country about temple, religion, God, caste, I worry about India. Temples are not going to create jobs for tomorrow. Only science will create the future,” Pitroda said.

Why does there have to be a contradiction between paying obeisance before a deity and having a job? More importantly, why can’t Pitroda talk about jobs without referring to temples? Does he not remember the political damage the Ram Mandir movement caused his friend Rajiv?

Development versus secularism

The party’s veteran leader from Karnataka, Mallikarjun Kharge, has done his own bit to shift the political debate from development to religious identity. 

The Congress-supported chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, playing his own power games, said he was unable to deliver on governance because his party didn’t get the full mandate. In other words, he was blaming his ally, the Congress, for not being able to deliver. 

What was the Congress’ reply?

Secularism, said Kharge. Don’t forget secularism. What is the message to religious Hindu voters? That their development needs are somehow in conflict with the safety and security of Muslims? 

Don’t forget secularism, but what is the message to religious Hindu voters? It is not possible that these veteran leaders can’t see what they are doing. The question is: why are they doing it? 

But why are they doing this?

The charitable answer is that they have nothing else to offer. They are unable to woo new castes, offer any national mass leader, unable to show any good governance in Punjab or Karnataka or anywhere. So, all they are left with is the Hindu-Muslim divide.

The uncharitable explanation is that the Congress has a Hindutva death wish. It actually wants the BJP to win and make India a Hindu Pakistan. 

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2 Comments Share Your Views

2 COMMENTS

  1. 1. No one says that Congress party is for Muslims; it is definitely a party for everyone. However, it is necessary to find out how discussion on ‘Congress is a party of Muslims’ started. It was based on a report in an Urdu daily which was published, I believe, after Rahul Gandhi, Congress President, had invited Muslim Intellectuals for a chat. It is another matter that nothing much will be achieved from such interactions with Muslim intellectuals, who I believe have insignificant influence over Muslim masses. 2. Is unbiased discussion on subject of place of Muslims in our society and plight of majority of Muslims possible? Would we accept that during last six decades politicians who sought votes of uneducated, poor Muslims did nothing for them? Majority of Muslims have remained uneducated and poor. For this state of affairs leaders of the Muslim community as also leaders of so-called secular political parties are solely responsible. 3. It is time we accept that many of our politicians use or misuse religion in a clandestine manner. I think it is necessary to accept past mistakes and make efforts to introduce a vast majority of poor Muslims, particularly women, to formal education. We have to implement policies and programmes for creation of job opportunities for poor Muslims so that feeling of isolation will vanish. 5. Incidental question is: why is it a situation has arisen that Congress President has to issue a clarification and to defend secular credentials of his party?

  2. Keeping the next general election all about the incumbent’s Report Card is the opposition’s best bet. Of course, as the column notes, they should have some good answers to how they would do a better job managing the economy. A few temple visits to correct an impression – completely false, for the Congress has ruled a predominantly Hindu nation for more than fifty years – that the party is anti Hindu or is overdoing secularism is okay, but by now that point has been made and noted by all. 2. Siddaramiah’s clever tweets did not win Karnataka. Shashi Tharoor’s glib talk might cause real damage, as Mani Shankar Aiyer has done. The next battle will be fought in slush filled trenches, bayonet to bayonet. Not a debate on the ills of colonialism in faraway Oxford.

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