With a real chance of victory at such close range for the first time, a reinvention has become imperative for the Congress party.
The BJP is out of its comfort zone in Gujarat. Tilak-donning, temple-hopping Rahul Gandhi is trying to challenge the BJP on its own Hindutva turf.
Rahul started his Gujarat campaign by visiting Dwarkadheesh temple and has covered many famous and not-so-famous temples since then. He paid an unscheduled visit to Akshardham — a temple of BAPS, a dominant branch of Swaminarayan sect, associated with late Pramukh Swami. Khodaldham and Akshardham are also two important sect centres for Patidars, many of whom are seriously upset with the BJP. His visit to temple of Megh Maya, a Dalit icon, was also significant.
BJP leaders have dismissed Rahul’s temple visits but their anxiety is visible. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath termed it ‘pakhand’, ‘dambh’; Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan accused Rahul of being ignorant of Indian culture. Some in the media call it the Congress’ strategy of ‘soft Hindutva’.
There was even a popular Facebook joke that said that Rahul will now start chanting, “Mandir Wahin Banayenge” (the Ayodhya chant of “Temple will be built there”) soon.
Others ask: Why would the people of Gujarat vote for the Hindutva Team B?
But the Congress is comfortable with this watered-down version of Hindutva of late. Its role (or lack of it) during the 2002 violence was questionable, to say the least. Some of the local Congress leaders went as far as sending tiffins to the arrested rioters who were jailed for violence against Muslims. Even after losing their MLA Ehsan Jafri tragically in the infamous Gulbarga Society attack, the Congress never really appeared to be fighting on the ground — legally or otherwise.
But the Congress’ attitude has been defined largely by apathy. Its number of Muslim candidates has been on a decline in Gujarat. Ahmed Patel, the political secretary of Sonia Gandhi, remains the only prominent Muslim face. But he holds no appeal among the wider Muslim masses. But he has been a backroom operator and can hardly be called a ‘face’. Banners in Surat have come up saying ‘Musalman ko ticket nahi, to Musalman ka vote nahi’ (Muslims will not vote for you, if Muslim candidates are not fielded) — the message is for the Congress leadership.
The long journey of the Congress from being branded a pro-Muslim party to being charged with being “soft Hindutva” has not been an easy one. But understanding this trajectory is important for dissecting Rahul’s temple tourism in this campaign.
Muslims and Dalits were considered the traditional and dependable vote bank of the Congress. The anti-reservation riots, with a strong anti-Dalit sentiment in 1981 and 1985, brought the highest number of seats for the Congress (149 out of 182), because of the clever floating of the KHAM (Khatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims) formula by veteran Congressman Zinabhai Darji and Madhavsinh Solanki.
This was also the time that Latif, a local bootlegger from Ahmedabad, rose to prominence by playing up his Muslim identity during the 1985 communal riots. Latif routinely colluded with the police as the ruling establishment at that time looked the other way. Though he never joined the Congress, he was often photographed with the party leaders. There was a widespread belief that the Congress protected him, and the BJP began projecting this proximity in its politics.
In the 1987 Ahmedabad municipal elections, Latif contested from five seats as an independent candidate from jail against the Congress and the BJP, and won them all. The BJP’s election plank at that time was simple: Who do you want? Latif or us?
The election brought the BJP to power for the first time. It set the template for a long-term political discourse in Ahmedabad and eventually in Gujarat. The Congress was projected as ‘Latif’s party’ and BJP ‘the saviour’. It did not matter that Latif got a Congress MP Rauf Valliullah killed, according to reports.
The BJP won 67 seats in 1990 (from 11 in 1985). Thereafter, the state also saw the rise of Latif’s political clout, until he was killed in an encounter in 1997.
But the propaganda about the Congress being ‘Latif’s party’ stayed for a long time. The Congress did nothing to substantially erase it for two decades.
Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits appear more about rubbing off the stigma of ‘Latif’s party’ or ‘a pro-Muslim party’ rather than posing himself as a Hindutva icon and trying to defeat BJP on the Hindutva pitch. It is also a signal to the people that the Congress is not shunning Hindus or Hindu symbols in the name of secularism.
But why did this attempt at a makeover take so long even though the party leaders realised it was important to shake off the old image? Unlike previous elections, it is now that the party sees that it has a real chance at defeating the BJP.
The local anger against bad roads, unemployment and GST has been amplified in the social media and has created a conducive atmosphere for the Congress for the first time. But these issues are like the first-floor, second-floor and the third-floor of the building. The foundation of the building needs to be fixed first and that is the image of being a Latif’s party. And with a real chance of victory at such close range for the first time, a reinvention has become imperative for the Congress party.
Urvish Kothari is a Gujarat-based columnist
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