As Congress president, Rahul Gandhi's challenge will be to win Hindu hearts without becoming poor Hindutva copy
The principal tasks before Rahul Gandhi as Congress president will be to evolve strategies for countering Hindu nationalism without alienating the Hindus and ensuring Other Backward Classes (OBC) politics doesn't stump the party
Editor's note: This copy was originally published on 24 November. It's being republished after Rahul Gandhi filed his nomination papers for the post of Congress party president on Monday.
The principal tasks before Rahul Gandhi as Congress president will be to evolve strategies for countering Hindu nationalism without alienating the Hindus and ensuring Other Backward Classes (OBC) politics doesn't stump the party. These two tasks dwarf the challenges most media commentators have identified for Rahul — those of forging alliances with regional players and building the party organisation.
The Congress has been opposed to Hindu nationalism through its 132 years of existence. But this ideological position lost its edge ever since the BJP initiated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s. Since then, the Congress has hemmed and hawed, hoping Hindu nationalism will somehow pale before issues of development, rozi-roti, and creation of jobs. Indeed, the cyclical waning of Hindu nationalism enabled the Congress to return to power in 1991, 2004 and 2009.
Despite the ongoing economic slowdown, a glance at the political calendar of 2018 will affirm that Hindu nationalism and OBC politics will dominate in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is because the Supreme Court will have mostly likely delivered the judgment on the title suit pertaining to Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid, better known as the Ayodhya case, the draft National Register of Citizens for Assam will have been prepared, and the sub-categorisation of OBCs completed.
Here is how the three issues — Ayodhya, Assam, sub-categorisation — will play out in 2018, posing a challenge to Gandhi as he helms the Congress.
From 5 December, a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra will begin to hear the final arguments in the Ayodhya case. Misra stated in August that there would be no adjournments in the hearing. This has led many to conclude that the chief justice hopes to decide the case before he retires on 2 October, 2018. Why else would he have disallowed adjournments?
The final arguments will generate debates in the media on secularism versus Hindutva, faith versus rationality, whether it is possible to prove the precise birth place of Lord Ram, or that a temple was demolished to build the Babri Masjid. It is just the sort of political ambience in which the BJP had prospered in the past, and the Congress suffered. Rahul will have to therefore decide on the voice the Congress should adopt in media debates, alienating neither the Hindus nor Muslims — a tall order indeed.
Assuming the judgment favours the building of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The Sangh Parivar, as is its wont, will turn it into a spectacular event, perhaps even getting kar sevaks to troop in from different parts of the country for the construction of the temple. Hindu triumphalism will turn inter-community relationship fraught. As for Rahul, he can’t but become a participant, applaud from the sidelines or remain silent.
In the scenario of the Supreme Court disallowing the building of the Ram temple, Muslim triumphalism will be no less provocative. It will certainly aggravate the hurt of those Hindus for whom, because of decades of propaganda or otherwise, it is an article of faith that Lord Ram was born at the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood. A judgment against the temple will also goad the BJP into turning the 2019 elections into a veritable referendum on Lord Ram. It will ask voters to give it a mandate that would enable it to bring in a law for overcoming the adverse Supreme Court judgment. What then will be Rahul’s stance? Will he fight the 2019 election stating unequivocally that the Supreme Court judgment has to be accepted?
In both scenarios, India could erupt. Can Rahul at least rally Congress workers and civil society to ensure that India, regardless of which way the judgment goes, doesn’t get sucked into violence?
The controversy over the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam will also come to a boil in 2018. For those late on the NRC issue, here is a recap: The exercise for updating the NRC for Assam began in 2014, with the cut-off date for determining who is an Indian citizen pegged at 24 March, 1971. An Assamese resident has a choice from a slew of documents to prove his Indian citizenship.
The Registrar-General of India was supposed to have presented the draft NRC on 31 December, 2017. However, the state coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, told the Supreme Court on 15 November that the NRC can be completed only by 31 July, 2018. Complications have arisen because 48.9 lakh applicants submitted just gram panchayat certificates as 'link documents' to establish their citizenship. Very simply, the 'link document' is documentary evidence to establish that the applicant’s residency in Assam is legitimate as his or her parents or grandparents were in Assam before 24 March, 1971.
A state cabinet subcommittee had accepted the gram panchayat certificate as a legitimate link document, but this was struck down by the Guwahati High Court. Of the 48.09 lakh people who have submitted only gram panchayat certificates to the NRC authorities, around 20 lakh have been determined to be original inhabitants. This means that the citizenship claims of nearly 28 lakh are now doubtful. Since nearly 1.21 crore applications have yet to be verified, the list of those whose citizenship might come under challenge is likely to grow.
These developments have already prompted minority community organisations to protest, claiming that although they are Indians, they have been unjustifiably identified as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Once the draft NRC is presented to the Supreme Court, rest assured many will take to the streets. Their opposition will trigger a counter-reaction among indigenous Assamese, of whom Hindus are preponderant. It will become a Hindu versus Muslim battle.
The optics of this battle will extend beyond Assam. This is because the issue of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants has acquired a national dimension, courtesy the allegations that they have dispersed across the country. What position will Rahul take? The BJP has a distinct advantage — its electoral strategy targets Muslims to consolidate its Hindu support base. It has proved it can win without Muslim votes.
Will the Congress subtly court the Hindus, believing Muslims have no choice other than to vote for it in the hope of keeping out the BJP from power?
The sub-categorisation of OBCs
Sub-categorisation implies splitting the OBCs into two or three categories, each of which will then be apportioned a percentage of the 27 percent of government jobs and seats in educational institutes reserved for the socially and educationally-backward classes. Thus, for instance, the OBCs can be divided into Extremely Backward Classes (Group A), More Backward Classes (Group B), and Backward Classes (Group C). The 27 percent can then be split into, say, 15 percent for Group A, 8 percent for Group B, and 4 percent for Group C.
In North India at least, Yadavs will certainly get clubbed with Group C. They will consequently have fewer jobs and seats in educational institutes for which to compete in the reserved category. Yadavs constitute the support base of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), both in alliance with the Congress. In contrast, the Extremely Backward Classes or lower OBCs will emerge as the principal beneficiaries of the sub-categorisation. They voted massively for the BJP in this year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Through sub-categorisation, the BJP will likely consolidate its support base. A rift in the OBCs is likely.
The Group C castes will seek to either challenge the methodology adopted for sub-categorisation or they will raise the demand to remove the 50 percent cap on reservation. The reservation formula that the Congress offered to the state’s Patidar leader, Hardik Patel, does suggest that India’s Grand Old Party might, if push comes to shove, back the move for removing the 50 percent cap. Depending on how Gujarat votes, OBC-based parties and dominant castes, such as Patels, Jats, and Marathas, could well launch a coordinated movement for the removal of this 50 percent cap. This will shrink the opportunities of the upper caste, stoking their anger. The Congress leadership structure is dominated by the upper caste, but its voters have been consistently favouring the BJP for the last 25 years.
Will Rahul therefore support the removal of the 50 percent cap, concluding there is no point in waiting for the return of the upper caste to the Congress? This is more so as a conservative segment of the upper caste also ideologically supports Hindu nationalism. The process of sub-categorisation, according to the Central government’s timeline, should be completed in January. The Congress will be relieved if the dominant castes, the SP and the RJD decide not to strain the system. The Congress can then postpone hard decisions.
The background noise
The Sangh has already executed components of Hindu nationalism, palpable in the outbreak of lynching incidents over the issue of the cow. To this mix, the government has added yet another ingredient — its decision to criminalise triple talaq. A welcome measure otherwise, it signifies the BJP’s ploy to communally polarise voters. It is hard to imagine that the BJP wants to reform Muslims even as it relentlessly targets and torments them.
Gujarat shows the Congress is willing to compete with the BJP for Hindu votes. The BJP’s ploy has been to raise Hindu consciousness through Muslim-baiting and weld it to the idea of Hindu nationalism. In contrast, Rahul has been visiting one temple after another in the state. It is his attempt to convey to the people that the Congress isn’t anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim, a charge the BJP flings at it. But can Rahul win Hindus over only through temple visits? In a nutshell, his challenge is to win the hearts of Hindus without becoming a poor carbon copy of Hindutva.
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