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By Playing Safe on Muslim Party Row, Rahul Gandhi is Taking a Big Gamble

Rahul's purported statement has handed ammunition to the BJP on a platter ahead of the general elections next year.

Sneha Mordani | CNN-News18

Updated:July 17, 2018, 11:48 PM IST
By Playing Safe on Muslim Party Row, Rahul Gandhi is Taking a Big Gamble
File photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

'I stand with the last person in the line. The exploited, marginalized and the persecuted. Their religion, caste or beliefs matter little to me…..I am the Congress’, tweeted Congress President Rahul Gandhi, breaking his silence, full two days after an Urdu daily reported that the Congress President in a meeting with intellectuals from the Muslim community said that the Congress was a party for Muslims.

The BJP was handed ammunition on a platter and an aggressive debate began on how Congress is falling back on the minority appeasement card just months before the general elections. Undoubtedly, this suited the BJP. Not only was this their chance to polarize Hindu votes, but also they got an opportunity to upset Rahul Gandhi’s ‘soft hindutva’ apple cart.

The Prime Minister used this to the fullest. He killed two birds with one stone when he asked in a public rally if the Congress was a party for Muslim men or women. The statement was at a dig at the Congress for opposing the triple talaq bill.

The tone had been set. The Congress president was forced to respond. But the response in itself is reflective of the bind the Congress is in.

In 2014, the AK Antony Committee that had been constituted by the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi to analyse the dismal performance of the Congress in Lok Sabha elections after it was reduced to a tally of 44 seats indicated that communal polarisation by the BJP reaped them electoral benefits.

The report was handed over to Sonia Gandhi in August 2014 but in June, the same year, party veteran Antony, minced no words when he spoke in his home state of Kerala where he said that people had lost faith in the secular credentials of the party and that the feeling was that the Congress only bats for a few communities, especially minorities.

The message was particularly for Rahul Gandhi. A change in strategy was the need of the hour, a senior Congress leader from Delhi remarked. ‘We give them what they are asking for.’

In line with the party’s freshly devised strategy of not appearing overtly pro minorities, the media department of the Congress carried out a whisper campaign to discourage Muslim spokespersons of the party from communicating with the press and issue responses on issues that had the potential to polarise voters in favor of the BJP.

The first inkling of Rahul Gandhi’s interest in flirting with soft hindutva came in 2015 when he trekked to Kedarnath. Even then the BJP tried to take the sting out of the Congress’s tail by saying that the earthquake that hit the region was because Rahul Gandhi ate beef and visited the temple without purifying himself. The person making this remark was the party’s saffron clad MP from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj.

But Rahul was not backing out. Later next year, he visited Mathura where the party flaunted his Brahmin identity, with posters welcoming ‘Pandit Rahul Gandhi’ to the holy town. The departure from convention was writ large. The grand old party was on a reinvention mode.

The Gandhi scion in line with this made several temple visits in states that went to polls. In Gujarat, the janeu dhari Rahul took the BJP on with a record twenty five temple visits, jocularly referred to as his temple run! He did the same in Karnataka in 2018.

The recent meeting with intellectuals from the Muslim community threatens to negate any gains that he made. The party did go on an overdrive calling the report misleading and incorrect. But the BJP was not buying it and fielded cabinet minister Nirmala Sitharam to take Rahul Gandhi on.

She spoke about attempts to polarize the electorate before crucial state assembly polls this year and Lok Sabha polls next year.

In his attempt to beat the BJP at its game in the run up to 2019. Rahul Gandhi tweeted but that too was taken as an ‘admission of guilt’, a ‘confession’ by Rahul Gandhi as BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra put it.

The tweet showed Rahul Gandhi was playing safe. An attempt to drive home the point that the party will do enough for a secular cause.

Exactly in line with what Antony had said the party had failed to do. In his tweet, a safe middle path has been taken by the Congress president. How far this will pay him electoral dividends remains to be seen.

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