Has Congress president Rahul Gandhi discovered the elusive mantra to halt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pursuit for power in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019?
Modi and the new age BJP rode to power at the Centre in 2014, and in several states before and thereafter, on a heady mix of unadulterated Hindutva, anti-Congressism, nationalism and development/governance that ironically takes on the acronym HAND, the arch-rival’s electoral symbol.
There is no knowing whether the Congress’s search for a magic formula to take on the BJP will end with Rahul’s Kailash Mansarovar yatra to solicit Lord Shiva’s blessings for the country and his party which got only 44 Lok Sabha seats and less than 20% vote share in 2014. The grand old party is currently in power only in Punjab, Mizoram, Puducherry and Karnataka (where it is in alliance with the JD-S) and lacks a solid support base since its traditional Brahmin-minority-Dalit plank was hijacked by other parties over the years.
Rahul is banking on FADSss — farmers, adivasis, Dalits and his new-found Shiv bhakti with the ‘S’ also alluding to his frequent stopovers at various shrines or his antipathy towards the saffron brigade.
There was a brief period of resurrection when Sonia Gandhi gave the party a leftward tilt with the focus on the poor and the aam aadmi, jettisoned its ekla chalo (walk alone) policy to sew alliances with parties that brought with them their own social base and left the issue of prime ministership till after the 2004 polls. But when this experiment collapsed in 2014, the Congress was made to scour for new political props and a new identity, with its Hindutva outreach an example of it.
The reaction of his supporters is mixed. For those who hope that the overt display of the Hindu identity of this jeneudhari (sacred thread wearing) leader will counter the rampaging BJP and its brand of Hindutva, there are others who worry about its impact on the minorities, who have backed the Congress. His critics, of course, dismiss the showcasing of his new-found religiosity as drama, exhibitionism and a fad.
Rahul, no doubt, has often dramatically displayed his stand on issues he takes up. Recall his pillion ride to Bhatta Parsaul in Greater Noida, UP, in May 2011 to commiserate with agitating farmers or his attempted car-bike-foot foray, before his brief arrest in June 2017, to Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, where some farmers died in police firing. He dined and slept in Dalit homes and stood up in March 2008 in solidarity with the adivasis fighting the proposed mining in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills. He also tore a piece of paper to express his opposition to a proposed ordinance cleared by the Manmohan Singh cabinet to shield convicted law-makers. But when it came to religion and faith, he held his privacy in keeping with the party’s stand on maintaining secularism without wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeves.
In recent months, however, he has been exhibiting it with great elan. He visited over two dozen temples during the Gujarat Assembly polls and stopped at various mutts and mandirs while campaigning in Karnataka recently. He is likely to do the same for the state polls in BJP-ruled Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Kailash Mansarovar yatra is an ultimate display of his religio-spiritual journey.
Course Correction to blunt BJP’s anti-Hindu charge?
Does this spell a course correction for the Congress leadership and the party which has frequently contrasted its secular agenda with the BJP’s divisive and communal Hindutva? Is it invoking soft Hindutva in the belief that if you can’t fight them join them to take them on?
And it is not just Rahul who is at it. Senior leader and Madhya Pradesh state unit chief Kamal Nath promised cow shelters in all the 23,006 panchayats to counter the BJP-RSS’s "cow politics". In Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, in a controversial move, approved insertion of section 295AA to the Indian penal code to punish with life imprisonment anyone hurting sentiments or causing injury, damage or sacrilege to Guru Granth Sahib, Bhagwad Gita, Quran and Bible.
The question is why did the Congress opt for this course?
The genesis lies in the reported findings of the party’s in-house probe that attributed the 2014 debacle, among other factors, to the deeply entrenched perception that the Congress was pro-Muslim and pro-minority. The BJP added to this perception by accusing the Congress of being pseudo-secular, pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.
In highlighting Rahul’s Hindu identity, the Congress hopes to neutralise this charge (especially as it also adopted a cautious stand vis-a-vis Muslims) and challenge the BJP’s brand of emotive and aggressive Hindutva. This approach may not fetch it any hardcore Hindu votes, but it may blunt the anti-Hindu allegation and perhaps even help it reach out to a section of Brahmins and upper castes who had abandoned it for the BJP.
But there is also the worry that the Congress may be playing a dangerous game as its "soft" Hindutva is born out of political and electoral compulsions and not out of conviction as it does for the BJP-VHP-RSS which pursue it aggressively. The danger is that this approach might overshadow the Congress’s emphasis on inclusive growth, social justice, abolishing poverty and protecting marginalised communities, including SCs, STs and minorities.
There are other pitfalls too. It raises questions whether such outreach lends legitimacy to overt display of religiosity in politics? How will the party’s stand that the issue of Ayodhya is sub-judice and be left to the courts to decide compare with chants of the "mandir vohin banayege" brigade? What will be the impact of its stand on supporting triple talaq on the hardcore Muslim community? Will a recent report quoting him that the Congress was a “Muslim party” balance it out or will it undermine his Hindu outreach, with the BJP latching on to it.
Taking recourse to soft Hindutva
But then this is not the first time that Rahul or a Nehru-Gandhi leader has turned to so-called soft Hindutva. Jawaharlal Nehru did not have the time for such things but the epithet ‘pandit’ came with all the social and religious connotations.
Indira Gandhi regularly visited shrines and religious leaders though she was denied entry to the Jagannath temple in Puri in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi got the gates of the Ayodhya shrine unlocked in 1986 and began his election campaign from Faizabad with a call for ‘Ram rajya’.
Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president, took a dip at the Sangam during the Kumbh mela in January 2001, perhaps to defang the campaign over her foreign origin.
Rahul grabbed the headlines when in May 2015 he trekked to Kedarnath and in September 2016 became the first Gandhi family member to visit the makeshift Ram temple since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. He has now topped his religio-spiritual journeys with the Kailash Mansarovar yatra.
But unlike his predecessors who made similar gestures towards the Muslim community, Rahul has tended to play this down in his recent election campaigns perhaps in the belief that the minority, which is anti-BJP, will end up backing either the Congress or some other non-BJP parties which hope to join forces in 2019.
The big question is whether all this will help the Congress improve its standing with the voters.
The party would keep its fingers crossed. After all, the decision to open the locks in Ayodhya unleashed events that changed the course of Indian politics. Similarly, Operation Blue Star led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. But these were cataclysmic decisions and events.
Visiting shrines fall in a different category, which is personal as well as political. The Assembly results showed the Congress did well in the areas Rahul visited during his temple run in Gujarat. But there were other factors too, including the party’s efforts to build a social coalition and the dissatisfaction among farmers and other sections with the post-Modi regime, even though the BJP won the election.
In Karnataka, the JD-S played both an electoral spoiler and a post-electoral ally for the Congress. The outcome in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh too will depend on several factors.
Attacking the BJP
As it is, Rahul has managed to rile the BJP leadership with his allegations that it is pro-corporate, anti-people and anti-Dalit (which forced the government to bring a bill to overturn the SC verdict that diluted the SC/ST Act) and biting phrases like "suit boot ki sarkar", "Gabbar Singh tax (a reference to GST)" or "vikas gando thayo che (development has gone crazy)" in Gujarat.
He and his party have also hit out at the Modi regime on issues like farmers’ suicides, MSP, atrocities against Dalits and minorities, inadequate funding for MGNREGS, adverse effect of demonetisation, GST and Aadhaar on small businesses, manufacturing units and the poor, growing unemployment and the dip in GDP growth — issues with which the Congress hopes to cultivate a social constituency among these groups and classes. He also accused a scam in the government’s Rafale deal forcing an angry BJP for once to go on the defensive on these allegations.
While ahead of the 2019 polls, the Modi government is likely to address some of these issues, the challenges before the Congress are far too serious to be overcome only through speeches, shrine visits or scathing allegations. The party needs to create a reliable social alliance, increase its geographic footprint, build a supporter-voter connect and base, energise the organisation, regroup its cadre which has either migrated for greener pastures or withered away and work out a sustained political programme that would resonate with the people. It’s a tall order at the moment.
(The author is a veteran journalist. The views expressed are personal.)