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It may have misdiagnosed the problem of why it fell from grace
Is Congress perceived as Hindu enough to rule India? This appears to be a question preoccupying the party as it prepares for next year’s pivotal general elections against the ruling BJP.
That the fount of Nehruvian secularism is in the midst of a religious makeover is impossible to miss. For starters, take Rahul Gandhi’s famous ‘temple run’ ahead of Gujarat state elections last December. Gandhi ended up visiting at least a dozen Hindu temples or shrines over a six-week period. He also declared his descent from a family of “Shiv bhakts”.
As if that were not enough to burnish Congress’s religious credentials, a party spokesperson announced that the Nehru-Gandhi scion is not merely any old garden-variety Hindu, but belonged to the twice-born “janeu-dhari” or sacred thread-wearing variety.
More recently, Gandhi declared in Karnataka that Congress “followed the ideals of Basavanna,” the 12th century Hindu philosopher and social reformer revered by the state’s politically powerful Lingayat community. A spate of high profile temple visits appear central to the party’s Karnataka campaign as well.
To get a sense of how far Gandhi has travelled on this front recall his response to a question about his faith back in 2006, when he was still new to politics. “My religion is the national flag,” he said at the time. Simply put, a decade ago Gandhi sought to blur his religious identity; today he seeks to flaunt it.
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion has not undertaken this rebranding effort alone. We now see party spokespersons signing off tweets with “Vande Mataram,” or “I bow to thee mother.” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is busy promoting a new book, Why I Am a Hindu, a paean to the religion he practises ardently.
You cannot blame Congress, facing its deepest crisis in more than seven decades, for seeking to retool. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party is up against not only India’s most charismatic politician in a generation, but one who has altered the language of contemporary politics by wearing his piety on his sleeve. Modi stormed to power four years ago partly by consolidating, across both caste and class, the four-fifths of Indians who self-identify as Hindu.
In 2014, Congress comfortably outperformed BJP only among Muslim and Christian voters. It’s hardly rocket science for the party to conclude that in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority country it doesn’t pay to be seen, as an up-and-coming party leader put it to me, “as the party of minorities.”
Stripped to its essentials, the new Congress pitch is simple: We also visit temples, but we don’t try to shut down the livelihood of poor Muslim dairy farmers, question the Indianness of the Taj Mahal, or recruit legions of foul-mouthed trolls to spend their days abusing fellow Indians of other faiths.
In Tharoor’s telling, RSS and BJP have crudely hijacked a capacious faith given to the subtlest philosophical musings. Their ideology “adopts the Hindu religion not as a way of seeking the Divine but as a badge of worldly political identity.” He likens the semi-literate storm troopers of Hindu nationalism to British football hooligans.
On the face of it, it’s not difficult to understand why many in Congress are hopeful about the new strategy. Robbing BJP of “the Hindu-Hindu thing,” as one Congress leader put it to me, will allow the party to focus on Modi’s failure to deliver the revved up economy he promised. All other things being equal, who wouldn’t prefer the more inclusive party?
There’s one problem with this view: Congress runs the risk of having misdiagnosed the problem. I’m yet to come across a BJP supporter whose problem with Congress is that its leaders don’t seem to pray enough. Rather, they complain that Congress treats members of religious minorities better than Hindus, and that its leadership has been largely oblivious to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.
Both of these notions are contestable. But they set up a problem for Congress that cannot be solved simply by Gandhi visiting a few more temples and allowing cameras a glimpse of his rudraksha beads. To dodge the charge of pandering, Congress will need to shed its traditional ambivalence about implementing a uniform civil code for all Indians. It cannot afford to let senior leaders argue for the sanctity of sharia law in 21st century India, as Salman Khurshid did in these pages not long ago.
On the question of terrorism, the party will need to tighten messaging in a way that will not be easy. With a large chunk of media firmly behind BJP, Congress cannot afford to appear more sympathetic to alleged terrorists than to law enforcement officers. This is precisely what happened when, in 2012, Khurshid claimed that Sonia Gandhi teared up in sympathy for the terrorists who murdered a decorated policeman in Delhi’s Batla House in 2008.
Even if Congress manages to pull off this difficult recalibration it may not be enough. If anything, BJP benefits from the national debate shifting to its area of natural strength. Even the party’s fiercest critics do not doubt that its ranks are filled with pious Hindus. If piety is now a political virtue, then why would voters pick the party that has only rediscovered it recently?
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