Madhya Pradesh polls 2018: Congress' cynical manifesto for state threatens to push India's polity farther Right

The promises in the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh should belie the expectations of all those who had hoped that it would provide an alternative frame to the BJP's idea of Hinduism

Ajaz Ashraf November 12, 2018 07:46:57 IST
Madhya Pradesh polls 2018: Congress' cynical manifesto for state threatens to push India's polity farther Right

The cynicism of the Congress in framing the election manifesto for Madhya Pradesh will have stung the ideological opponents of Hindutva. They are likely to wonder whether a Congress victory in that state will decisively shift India's polity to the Right and make majoritarianism its common sense. They will even calculate whether the price to be paid for a Congress revival is worth it.

The manifesto of India's Grand Old Party is indeed an eloquent testament to the abysmal depths to which it can plunge. Emulating the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress has promised to develop the Ram Path Gaman or the route Lord Ram is said to have taken during the 11 years of 14 in exile he purportedly spent in Madhya Pradesh's forests. In addition, there are sops a plenty to appeasing the Hindu clergy.

The Congress has also doffed its Gandhian topi to the BJP's politics of cow. If voted to power, the Congress will begin commercial production of cow urine, build a gaushala in every panchayat, allocate a separate fund for them, establish temporary camps to treat injured bovines and perform their last rites if required. Quite alarmingly, its idea of land reform has degenerated into making additional land available for cattle to graze.

These promises in the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh should belie the expectations of all those who had hoped that it would provide an alternative frame to the BJP's idea of Hinduism: That it would create its own archetype Hindu to compete with the BJP’s intolerant, militant version.

Madhya Pradesh polls 2018 Congress cynical manifesto for state threatens to push Indias polity farther Right

File image of Rahul Gandhi. Twitter @INCIndia

These expectations were stoked because of Congress president Rahul Gandhi flaunting his Hinduness and visiting temples to convey that he and his party were not anti-Hindu as the BJP alleged. His emphasis on his Hindu identity was thought to herald the beginning of a concerted fight for reclaiming the philosophical and cultural heritage of Hinduism, to at least deny the BJP the sole monopoly of the Hindu religious realm.

The Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh shows that it has neither the intellectual heft nor the energy and patience for such a task. It has, therefore, chosen the easier option of imitating Hindutva, not re-inventing or reinterpreting Hinduism.

Its choice of the state to showcase its imitation Hindutva, aka soft Hindutva, is remarkable for its cynicism. With Muslims constituting just 6.57 percent of the state's population, their possible alienation has barely any electoral significance for the Congress. The Congress has also made the tacit assumption that Muslims will not vote for the BJP. After all, the Sangh Parivar has relentlessly targeted them to consolidate its Hindu vote bank.

The Congress thinks Muslims will choose its soft Hindutva over the BJP's hard Hindutva because they have no third option. These are classic blackmail tactics: Pay up (read: Vote for us) or keep getting clobbered over the next five years. In case a section of Muslims stay at home or press NOTA, the consequent loss of votes can be more than offset by gaining those of Hindus who might be tempted to back the Congress for pandering to their religious sentiments.

On such cold calculations is the Congress' Hindutva adventurism in Madhya Pradesh based. This adventurism has been encouraged also because the Congress is insulated from the possibility of its Madhya Pradesh manifesto marring its prospects in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — the other two states that will vote over the next 26 days.

This is because Muslims comprise just 7.17 percent in Chhattisgarh; its polity, like Madhya Pradesh’s, too is largely bipolar even though a Third Front in the form of an alliance between former chief minister Ajit Jogi and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati exists there. Shrewdly, the Congress made public its manifesto just 48 hours before the first round of polling in Chhattisgarh was to commence. Large-scale shifts in voting, as any psephologist will vouch for, rarely happen overnight.

In Rajasthan, Muslims comprise a healthy 9.7 percent of the state's population. That could prove decisive in a close race. But Rajasthan, too, has bipolar politics and doesn’t even have a third front matching in strength, on paper at least, the one in Chhattisgarh. Most media reports and opinion surveys show that the political wind is strongly blowing against Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. Muslims can’t buck the trend, can they, regardless of the Congress manifesto enraging them? Will their rage sustain until 7 December, which is when Rajasthan will vote? The answers in both cases: Very unlikely.

The Congress can also play the majoritarian game because its calculation is that it does not have much to lose in the long term. Muslims have shifted their allegiance to regional outfits in states where they are numerous. Think Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi, and large parts of Assam.

The Hindutva challenge to the Congress is confined to the Hindi heartland, not south India, where in Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu an electoral alliance has already emerged. It will likely also emerge in Andhra Pradesh. Whatever their angst over Congress policies and the ideological shift, Muslims will not vote in these states for a regional party embedded in a BJP-led alliance. In Kerala, religious minorities have the option to side with the Left Front, which, obviously, will not support the BJP at the Centre.

It is palpable that underlying the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh is its strategy to deprive the BJP of Hindu votes and dramatically bring down its tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Some may hail the Congress for its pragmatism, but there is no denying that its Madhya Pradesh manifesto pushes India's polity farther to the Right.

For one, it is predetermined that the Congress will spearhead the Opposition alliance for next year's General Election. The outlook of such an alliance will be refracted through the soft Hindutva prism of the Congress. For the other, the Congress manifesto legitimises Hindutva and the politics of cow. That should immensely worry the secular-liberal brigade rooting for the Congress. This is because India's past electoral history shows that the BJP's Hindu card acquired credibility and salience only when Indira Gandhi decided to play it from the 1970s. The split in the Congress in 1969 had deprived her of an organisational network. She sought to overcome this problem through populist policies like Garibi Hatao and abolition of the privy purse. Once the electoral benefits from these policies diminished, she turned to courting the Hindus as Hindu.

About her rule, the late journalist Balraj Puri wrote: "Her frequent visit to Hindu shrines and religious personalities gave her a religious image. But what really endeared her to Hindu militants was her militant nationalism which she first introduced in Indian politics in the 1970s and which she tended to fill in the ideological vacuum to which the Indira-JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] confrontation had significantly contributed as none of the sides was ideologically based."

Her problems were further compounded with the drifting away of Muslims in the post-Emergency 1977 Lok Sabha election. The rise of militancy in Punjab and Kashmir provided her the opportunity to unabashedly engage in othering the Sikhs and Kashmiri Muslims. For instance, following Operation Blue Star, Gandhi at a speech in Garhwal declared that Hindu dharma was under attack and appealed to save Hindu culture from Sikh and Muslim attack.

Then again, in 1983, she wooed the Hindus in the Jammu and Kashmir election campaign by stoking the fears regarding the Resettlement Bill that allowed Kashmiris who had migrated to Pakistan between 1947 and 1954 to return and reclaim their properties. The Congress swept the Jammu province as the BJP did in December 2014 through its own brand of polarisation.

The process of Hinduisation of Indian politics sped up thereafter. In a flagrant violation of the secular principle, Rajiv Gandhi overturned the Supreme Court’s 1985 Shah Bano judgement through a law. He then sought to neutralise the Hindu backlash against it by getting the locks on the gates of the Babri Masjid removed in 1986. From thereon, the BJP’s graph started to rise and that of the Congress began to dip.

The Congress of Indira and Rajiv pursued soft Hindutva and found the BJP overtake it through its more militant version in later years. It is now the Congress that is trying to play catch-up with the BJP. It is always perilous to forecast whether people will choose imitation Hindutva over its 24-carat version.

Given that the conviction of Congress changes in accordance with its electoral performance, a victory in Madhya Pradesh will decisively push India's polity to the Right. Conversely, a defeat there will have it revise its strategy of meeting the BJP’s challenge through soft Hindutva. That would certainly keep alive the idea of India, about which Rahul Gandhi tires of talking.

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