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Bovine Intervention: Decades After Indira's Balancing Act on Slaughter, Priyanka and Congress Connect Cow with Kisan to Corner BJP in UP

AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

The party is planning a mega march and campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Without supporting cow slaughter, the Congress says the ban on it has hit farmers hard and has also led to a menace of stray cattle.

At the core of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindutva pitch is the protection of cows and ban on slaughter of the animal considered sacred by many Hindus. While the Congress has had a mixed response to this, now it has seized an opportunity to hit out at the BJP.

The raging farm protests have given a chance to the Congress to connect the cow with the kisan. The party is planning a mega march and campaign particularly in Uttar Pradesh against the Yogi Adityanath government on this.

Sources say Priyanka Gandhi Vadra too may join in at some point though she has already tweeted on this. The Congress says that the ban on cow slaughter has affected the farmers in UP very badly. Party leaders say normally a cow gives the best milk till the birth of three calves after which the output falls sharply. Many farmers find little use for these cows after that and abandon them.

Also, with changes in the process of tilling farms, and with extensive use of tractors, even the use of bullocks has fallen. So, farmers are increasingly abandoning these bovines. This means stray cattle on the streets, often found in inhuman conditions, according to the Congress, and also farmers are having to guard their farms with barbed wire fences which means their costs are going up. This is what the Congress hopes to use as ammunition against the Yogi government and BJP.

Given the fact that the Congress wants to toe a Hindutva line, it's aware it cannot be seen as supporting cow slaughter. But by linking it to the kisan issue, as cows and farmers are inextricably connected, the party hopes to accomplish a fine balancing act.

Cows have been a source of dilemma for the Congress in terms of its political strategy. Very few remember that 'a cow with a suckling calf' was the party symbol when Indira Gandhi broke away to form her own Congress and she was denied the earlier 'bullock and yoke' symbol by the-then main Congress. Her slogan was, “Vote for calf and cow, forget others now."

In fact the strengthening and moulding of Indira as a steely politician finds its genesis in the cow-saving lobby she faced in the 1960s when there was an agitation for a ban on cow slaughter. She had said then that she would not "cow down to cow savers". But as the movement gained support, Indira Gandhi could not maintain her stance for long. A section of the Congress was already in favour of a countrywide ban on cow slaughter. Indira Gandhi did realise that committing the Congress to a policy that made it appear opposed to the cows of India meant risking a large percentage of votes in the elections due in February 1967.

However, Gandhi was not willing to give in to a complete ban since it would be against the party’s secularist ideology and would have also appeared disrespectful to her father’s memory. She needed a mid-way approach that could keep the cow protectors happy while at the same time not risk the image of her party. She explained that she was deeply concerned about the problem of cow-killing and was setting up a high-level committee of animal husbandry experts and politicians to check on the feasibility of a total prohibition on cow slaughter. The committee ruled against a blanket ban.

And this was her way of finding a balance to both protecting cows and also run the Congress line of not interfering in eating habits and religious beliefs.

Years later, her granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is also seen by some Congress proponents as Indira reborn, is searching for a similar balance in UP. She knows that taking on Yogi in his karmabhoomi cannot be done by going against the cow slaughter ban. But by shrewdly linking it to the farmers for whom the connection with the cow runs deep, Priyanka is trying to strike the same balance. "Farmers cannot be happy with the treatment of cows that are left to fend for themselves under Yogi Raj" is the pitch for the Congress in UP.