Opinion | How PM Modi's 'Party of Muslims' Remark Exposes Congress' Never-Ending Identity Crisis
Increasingly, aggressive wooing of the minorities did not help the Congress regain the ground it had lost, but it did end up throwing the party's 'secular' credentials in doubt, as the AK Antony report pointed out.
File photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. (Network 18 Creatives)
Much time and energy has been expended in moral outrage over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's “Congress is a party of Muslims” remark. Some see it as a cheap shot, others as a dangerous attempt to polarise the electorate and still others as a clever barb aimed at the biggest chink in the Congress armour.
The allegation has a strategic value, otherwise the PM would not have wasted his breath. The Congress' vulnerability to such propaganda is a function of its never-ending identity crisis. A progressive leftward shift undermined its centrist identity and laid it open to the charge of minoritism, but failed to restore the minority community's faith in the party.
The PM observed that “Congress president has said that Congress is a party of Muslims, I am not surprised by this. All I want to ask is, is their party only for Muslim men or for women too?” Craftily, he positioned the grand old party as pro-minority, anti-women and left-of-centre. By default, the BJP was painted as pro-Hindu, pro-women and right-of-centre.
In all likelihood, the quote was taken out of context from an unexceptionable statement by Rahul Gandhi, to the effect that the Congress stood with Muslims because they were weak and his party always stands with the weak.
Earlier this year, Sonia Gandhi had wryly commented that the BJP had managed to convince people that the Congress was a Muslim party.
The PM's remark was a reference to the 'triple talaq' issue, which the BJP would like to characterise as the Shah Bano case of our times. Evoking the latter is useful, because it recalls the Congress' most inglorious hour – the use of a brute majority in Parliament to subvert a Supreme Court judgment in favour of Muslim women, transparently caving into pressure from the Muslim clergy.
The Congress insistence on sending the triple talaq or Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha has afforded the BJP an opportunity to claim sabotage and hammer the Congress for its alleged subservience to a gender-insensitive Muslim clergy. Perhaps the Congress, which red-flagged certain provisions of the Bill but supported it in the Lok Sabha, would have been better off allowing the TMC and Left to lead the charge in the Rajya Sabha.
Significantly, the PM's attack is ad hominem, squarely targeting Rahul Gandhi. The implication being that the apple does not fall far from the tree - the father presided over the reversal of Shah Bano and the son now seeks to undermine measures against triple talaq.
The Congress is well aware that the BJP gains traction from characterising it as minority-centric. The Congress of yore was a pan-Indian umbrella sheltering all manner of interest groups and shades of opinion, from left to right. The politics of Mandal and Masjid threw up vigorous new forces and the Congress found itself in direct competition for minority votes, even as the BJP sought to consolidate the 'Hindu' vote.
Increasingly, aggressive wooing of the minorities did not help the Congress regain the ground it had lost, but it did end up throwing the party's 'secular' credentials in doubt, as the AK Antony report pointed out. To this day, a section of the Congress insists that the report is relevant only to Kerala and not the rest of the country.
The trouble is that the Congress is still struggling to define itself vis-a-vis the electorate. Sporadic attempts to bounce back and reclaim the centrist space have only resulted in confusion, because it is hyper-sensitive to extra-party opinions. When Rahul Gandhi sought to present himself as a good Hindu, a Shiv-bhakt and a janeu-dhari brahmin, the left liberals were outraged. Sonia more or less admitted that his temple run in Gujarat was a conscious statement, as the party had been 'pushed into a corner' by the BJP.
Minorities comprise a fifth of India's population and cannot be rendered irrelevant in electoral terms (although it certainly looked that way in the wake of the Modi wave of 2014). But minorities repose faith in the Congress when it is seen as confident in its secular convictions rather than self-consciously seeking their votes.
Congress leaders such as Capt Amarinder Singh and Siddaramaiah don't need to take manufactured positions to win a mass following. Nor do they bother to justify themselves to so-called intellectuals who have no direct stake in the party but seek to dictate its agenda.
The more the Congress, goaded by non-party actors, engages with and rages against the BJP's propaganda machine, the more it paints itself into a corner.
(The writer is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)
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