The path to neutralising Hindutva goes through the temporal.
If Rahul Gandhi’s Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was meant to portray him as a good Hindu, it has failed to achieve that. You don’t change your image through your actions in politics circa 2018. You change your image through images. The images that came from Rahul’s Kailash Mansarovar Yatra showed him as a happy tourist on a trek, not as a religious pilgrim.
You will find it difficult to find images of Rahul playing Holi or celebrating Diwali – images that you will easily find for other politicians. These are the easy ways to say ‘of course, I’m Hindu’. But these festivals are Rahul’s excuses to take Europe flights.
You can’t win on your opponent’s turf
Ten days on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, which came three months before critical state assembly elections and over six months before the general elections, was a massive waste of a time for the main opposition leader. Spending so much time projecting himself as a good Hindu is not going to reap electoral rewards for Rahul, even if he had produced the right visuals.
Religion as a tool for politics is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) USP. No matter how the Congress redefines it, it can never own it – despite the Congress party’s own generous contribution to the fall of the Babri Masjid that changed Indian politics forever. Trying to be Hindu now will only make the Congress come across as a wannabe-BJP. The Congress cannot win on the BJP’s turf.
The BJP’s Hindutva politics is not about being a religious Hindu but about despising Muslims. The BJP’s core Hindutva supporters are less worried about doing puja and more concerned about whether the Muslim population will be brought down in Assam. The Congress can never win this game.
Background and foreground
Exactly two years ago, in September 2016, Rahul undertook a Kisan Yatra across Uttar Pradesh. The yatra was the brainchild of Rahul’s campaign manager at that time, Prashant Kishor. The idea was to counter Rahul’s image of inconsistency and incoherence.
For an entire month, Rahul said little other than three things: waive off farm loans, reduce electricity bills for farmers, and increase farmer income through minimum support prices.
Along the yatra, Kishor also made Rahul visit temples for darshan. The idea was to counter the allegation that Rahul and his party are anti-Hindu. But this was not the main point of the yatra, which was primarily about farmers.
Rahul carried on with the temple visits in the run up to the Gujarat election in December 2017. I remember asking BJP-supporting voters in the state what they thought of his temple run. “What’s there to think about,” one said dismissively, “it’s only making sure Hindutva doesn’t work.”
Indeed, it is difficult to paint a regular temple-goer as anti-Hindu. The trick was working.
They key to this trick is that ‘Being Hindu’ cannot become a full-time preoccupation for Rahul. It helps to play the ‘Me Too Hindu’ card in the background, but if you foreground it, it becomes counter-productive.
The Kailash Mansarovar Yatra resulted in a 10-day media obsession over ‘Being Hindu’, foregrounding what should have been in the background. As a result, BJP-supporting media and Twitter warriors have changed the question to ‘Who’s a real Hindu?’ This is proof that Rahul’s Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was an excess.
Spending 10 days on saying ‘I’m Hindu’ means you’re no longer just countering the anti-Hindu charge. You’ve now gone into the Hindu akhara, where you can never defeat the BJP.
Foreground what hurts the opponent
To defeat the BJP, Rahul and the Congress will have to foreground what hurts the BJP. Hindu identity politics is not one of those.
Indian politics has come a long way in its shift towards the right. There was a time when many called the Congress pseudo-secular, but today many call it pseudo-Hindu. In all these years, the Congress has failed to learn the tried and tested formula of defeating Hindutva in electoral politics. It’s called caste.
The BJP has reinvented itself from being a party of upper castes to now wooing lower OBCs, but the Congress has failed at any re-invention of the caste configuration. This is again because Rahul is a shoot and scoot politician. In the 2012 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, he had tried wooing lower OBCs. Once he failed, he forgot all about it. Such aims need years, even decades of efforts. Rahul wants quick-fix solutions.
In the Bihar assembly election of 2015, the BJP tried making beef an issue. RJD chief Lalu Yadav had said some Hindus also eat beef, but they should not. TV channels removed the qualifier and made “Lalu says Hindus also eat beef” a big issue.
Instead of spending time defending the charge, Lalu Yadav and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar, who were part of an alliance then, came up with a counter-offensive. They made it a Backward versus Forward election, seeking OBC consolidation. There was also the sub-regional identity polarisation of Bihari versus Bahari (outsiders), calling Modi-Shah Gujaratis. By using caste and regional identity, Nitish-Lalu deflected the narrative from Hindutva. This strategy was also Prashant Kishor’s, incidentally.
Similarly, in Karnataka election, then-chief minister Siddaramaiah prevented Hindutva polarisation by resorting to Kannada identity and caste strategies. What is common in these examples is that neither Lalu-Nitish, nor Siddaramaiah spent 10 days ‘Being Hindu’.
Aam aadmi ko kya mila?
The caste game may be a tough one, but Rahul is unable to do a good job of even playing the anti-incumbency challenger.
To defeat Hindutva, Rahul ironically needs to do 10-day campaigns on other things. When he scored a brownie point by hugging Narendra Modi, he didn’t carry that forward. He could have asked his party leaders to hug BJP office-bearers across the country. He could have asked Congress activists to send ‘get well soon’ greeting cards to BJP leaders who make controversial statements. Instead of making a campaign out of his rather abstract love-hate binary, he was off to Europe.
Similarly, the Congress’ Bharat Bandh against fuel price rise was a one-day affair, and that too was badly organised. The party’s efforts to speak on fuel price rise have not been getting much attention. Getting attention in today’s environment needs a campaign-like approach: do only one thing for 10 days, like going to Kailash Mansarovar.
If Rahul himself did novel things to produce visuals protesting against fuel price rise, the impact would show. When Rahul should have been talking about fuel prices day and night, he was trekking up Mount Kailash.
When the Congress does show consistency on an issue, it sticks. The Congress has consistently been alleging corruption in the Rafale deal, and so it has become a big issue. The Congress defeated the BJP in 2004 by asking ‘aam aadmi ko kya mila?’ (What did the common man get?). That is how you defeat Hindutva. You cannot do it by going on long treks.
Walking the tightrope between ‘Being Hindu’ and falling in the Hindutva trap is too difficult for a politician of Rahul’s calibre. It’s likely that he’ll fall off this tightrope in 2019.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments.