In the run up to Gujarat Assembly election in 2017 Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had remarked, "BJP has always been a pro-Hindutva party and if someone wants to mimic us I do not have any complaints. But there's a basic principle in politics, if an original is available why would anyone prefer a clone?" The comment came at a time when Rahul Gandhi was resetting his image as a pious Hindu with his series of temple runs in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state, including performing puja before the historically and symbolically important shrine of Somnath. Determined to shed the tag of a secular liberal that he was perceived or portrayed to be, the Gandhi scion thought it was the most prudent way to move ahead in Gujarat.
The initial signs were encouraging with the saffron outfit's relentless attempts to raising doubts over the Congress president's faith receiving a cold frown from the electorate as Congress increased its tally in the state from 61 to 77. The pattern of temple run and rediscovering of his Hindu roots was further given a boost during Karnataka elections and then came a pilgrimage made to Kaliash Mansarovar.
The Assembly elections to three Hindi heartland states at the fag end of 2018 saw little let up in the ostentatious display of the leader’s faith. While the Congress left the BJP behind, gasping for breath in Chhattisgarh, the party barely scraped through the finishing line in Rajasthan while in Madhya Pradesh it only emerged as the single largest party stopping just short of the majority mark. The spin doctors and sycophants within the party claimed the victories to be a sure sign of Rahul’s image makeover as a janeudhari Shiv Bhakt finding resonance within the Hindu voters who otherwise would have lined up to vote for Modi. The narrative was lapped up by the media, unchallenged by experts or political watchers till 23 May, 2019 when Modi completed a home run decimating the Congress in the very states where it claimed that Rahul’s Hindutva image had reaped rich dividends for the party.
In Gujarat and Rajasthan ,where the saffron unit had maxed winning all the seats, the party has repeated its performance and even improved its vote share: an increase of 2.89 percentage points from 55.61 percent in 2014 to 58.5 percent in 2019 in Rajasthan and by 3.11 percentage points in Gujarat – from 59.1 percent in 2014 to 62.21 percent this time. In Madhya Pradesh the party has snatched one seat from the Congress taking its tally up to 28 out of 29 seats with an increase in vote share by 3.24 percentage points. Despite the party losing a seat to Congress in the naxal-affected Chhattisgarh the party managed to improve its vote share by 1.04 percentage points. Whether it's in Somnath, which falls under Junagadh seat, Bhopal, Ujjain, Varanasi or Pushkar, which falls under Ajmer, the party was left struggling to catch up with the BJP.
Congress' complete whitewash in Rajasthan and Gujarat — besides Madhya Pradesh where the party has been reduced to a single seat — undercuts the carefully crafted narrative of the electorate's acceptance of Rahul as a Hindu leader and raises doubts over the sagacity of the party apparatchiks to take on Modi-Shah in their own turf. So how did Rahul's carefully-crafted image makeover of rediscovering his Hindu roots and influencing voters went kaput?
First and foremost Rahul’s decision to fight from Wayanad in Kerala, a seat which has a substantial concentration of minority voters, went against him. Compare it to Modi’s decision to fight from Varanasi in 2014 and 2019, a seat that resonates strongly with Hindu ethos and holds significant symbolism to Hindu pride and resurgence, and you will ascertain why Rahul cannot even challenge Modi as a symbol of political Hindutva, forget about unseating him. Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad delivered a wrong message: when in doubt – as he was on a weaker platform in Amethi – the leader and party's default choice will always be to rely on the vote from minority community to see him through. It even allowed the Prime Minister to take a not-so-subtle dig at Rahul, "The ‘Namdaar’ in Congress took out his microscope to select a safe seat where the majority is in minority."
Rahul falls drastically short when compared to the Prime Minister’s long history of presenting himself as a Hindu mascot. Modi has had a long history of upholding Hindutva as a political weapon to woo voters. He had publicly refused to wear skull caps in full media glare; never threw an Iftar party and skipped scores of them. His convincing portrayal of Hindus as victims of attack from secular liberals and falsely blaming a section of the community for terror-related activities cut cord with the section of majority community who voted along religious lines.
The party’s decision to field former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh from Bhopal, a known RSS baiter whose politically incorrect stance of questioning Batla House encounter also went against it. In fact Digvijaya’s nomination from Bhopal made things easier for the BJP as it fielded Malegaon-blast accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur against him with Modi publicly defending the Sadhvi in his rallies and press conferences. The Sadhvi's version of Hinduism – shrill, rabid and at times riddled with violent polemics - aggressively looks to confront the wrongs that has been afflicted on the Sanatana Dharma and restore its original glory. She was brought into the mainstream to test this idea's political legitimacy. The defeat of Digvijaya by three-and-half-lakh votes further established once and for all and sent an ominous signal to the Congress whose leader Rahul had put his political future on a pluralistic, progressive, all-encompassing version of the faith.
A parivar insider, who wished to remain anonymous said, "It was Rahul's father who opened the gates of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. But the party has shied away from taking the advantage of it politically, which the BJP exploited to the hilt. One cannot be as wishy-washy if one is dangling with religious sentiments for political gains." Even today, decades after LK Advani’s barb of pseudo secularism got stuck around Congress' neck like an albatross, the party struggles to get rid of it." The grand-old party has been singed time and again from the ills of indecisiveness after being caught at sixes and sevens when it came to taking a clear-cut stance on controversial issues involving faith. The party’s posture on Ram Temple is one such example. A party cannot remain neutral or its members cannot ask the apex court to defer the case as it might hurt it electorally. Issues like Ram Temple are of paramount importance for the votaries of political Hindutva.
The Congress president's stance on Triple Talaq is a reminiscence of what Rajiv Gandhi did post Shah Bano verdict. Checkmated by Modi’s pragmatism, the Congress took refuge in technicalities of the bill to oppose it. By allowing Sushmita Dev (an MP in sixteenth Lok Sabha) to oppose the bill on the floor of the house and later promising to withdraw it Rahul made the same mistake his father did when he upturned the Supreme Court’s verdict on Shah Bano case through his brute majority in Parliament. The majority saw through his stratagem and the optics of temple visits fell flat.
The pattern was repeated with the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The careful maneuvering by the ruling dispensation in bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Bill that spoke about accepting and granting citizenship to displaced and migrant non-Muslims in South Asia left the Congress with no other option but to vote against it. In states like Assam and West Bengal, where it is a major issue, the party lost considerable ground among Hindus who were once migrants.
In fact, experts feel that the Congress party and its fellow travelers are yet to come to terms with political Hindutva as espoused by the BJP. Indira Gandhi did depict herself as staunch nationalist and never hid herself from visiting temples or heads of various Mutts. But then Jana Sangh wasn’t as powerful as the BJP under Modi is and its influence to polarize voters was limited. The modern version of today’s political Hindutva had its first genesis in the late 80s during the heady days of Mandal-Kamandal politics when BJP rose like a Phoenix riding on the back of Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Since then the Congress’ base has been slowly shrinking in the Hindi heartland and Gujarat with BJP eating away at its support base wherever there is a direct fight between them. The grand-old party has always fallen short of matching up or even negating the Parivar’s influence whenever elections have been fought along communal lines.
So where does Rahul or more precisely the Congress’ soft Hindutva go from here? Should it junk its soft Hindutva and aggressively embrace a belligerent version of the same emulating BJP and claiming credit for opening the gates of Ram Mandir during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership? "Imitations or a sudden change doesn’t work in politics. It takes a long time to build a brand and manage public perception. Will people accept a ‘cool-Dhoni’ displaying aggression the way Kohli does or vice versa?" says Sriram Karri, author and political analyst. So can the party really return to its UPA days of secularism when Manmohan Singh had said that Muslims being minority have the first right on the country’s resources to counter Modi-Shah's political Hindutva? "The Congress has to engage with a new set of intellectuals and civil society and offer a counter narrative. It has to rebuild itself on a new set of tenets and give a new meaning to its ideas," says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. For a party which in its pristine version had led India to its freedom the future looks bleak if it has to take on Modi-Shah duo on issues of Hindutva, unless it’s prepared to wait for the regime to fall under the burden of anti-incumbency.
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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2019 22:07:03 IST