Expect the secularism versus communalism debate to dominate the centrestage in the run up to the 2014 general elections. This has been the Congress’s, more specifically the Gandhi family’s, favourite turf since the 1952 general election and it serves the political interest of the party that the polarising topic becomes the big talking point prior to the elections. The Congress could be praying secretly that the BJP and its mother organisation, the RSS, project Narendra Modi as their prime minister candidate.
This would solve a whole lot of problems confronting the party, right from finding a major poll plank to deflecting attention from the major failures of the UPA to assembling allies for the next ruling coalition at the centre. Now that the leadership issue is taken care of with the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as party vice-president, it would try to provoke the BJP into the communal-secular debate and make its stand on Modi clear.
In this context, it is no accident that Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde would mention the RSS-BJP link to Hindu terror camps at the party’s Chintan Shivir.
"…We are taking steps against injustice towards minorities as also against infiltration. But in the midst of all this we have got an investigation report that be it the RSS or the BJP, their training camps are promoting Hindu terrorism,’’ said Shinde.
For those familiar with the script, the intent in the statement would be clear. There has been vociferous protest from the BJP camp, but maybe that’s exactly what the Congress wants.
Right from the country’s first general election in 1952 through the days of Indira Gandhi to now, the RSS has provided the constant ideological counterweight to the Congress. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi firmed up their position in the party and the polity by neutralising the right wingers in the party and taking on the RSS. Over time, the party has realised that the issue is electorally productive. And to its advantage, communalism evokes a sense of fear not only among the Muslims but also a large section of the non-vocal Hindus. The secularism debate stokes emotions and invariably buries other indefensible failures of the party.
The vote share of the party has reduced from the high 40s in the early decades of Independence to about 29 percent now. In the years between 1999-2009, its vote share has grown a meagre .5 percent. The BJP’s vote share in the corresponding period has, in fact, declined marginally. Nationally the combined strength of both the parties is around 50 percent. It shows that the regional powers have entrenched themselves deep in politics both at the national and state levels. It also means that the chances of growth for both the parties is fairly limited. Unless they find emotive issues, they won’t witness any dramatic revival in their fortune.
The secularism versus communalism debate fits nicely into this scenario. As things stand now, the BJP has no strong issues to attack the Congress with. Corruption could have been an important weapon, however the scandals involving its own leaders - alleged or real - have blunted that advantage. If Nitin Gadkari gets a second term as party president, which looks a certainty at this point, it compromises the party further. There are deep fractures within the party itself over his second term. The BJP stands to gain from the general negative perception about the ruling UPA, however it would be offset if the Congress manages to bring communalism to the front burner.
While the other parties have thrown the challenge to the Congress off and on, the RSS has been its most consistent rival over decades. Both organisations represent two conflicting visions of India; two mutually incompatible ideologies. The BJP is handicapped by the fact it is considered an extension of the RSS, a force of orthodoxy and traditionalism. With the urban educated middle class a formidable electorate now, the Congress would be on overdrive to stress the point.
Nothing serves it better than making the battle ideological. It won’t mind too much about Modi being at the centrestage of the BJP game plan, at least at this point. Don’t be in for a surprise if you hear more provocative statements from the Congress on the RSS and the BJP in the coming days.