Hindus account for almost 80 percent of India’s population. Yet, over the major part of the seven decades since the partition of British India and their nation’s independence, Indians prided themselves in the land’s spiritual syncretism and for being home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population closely followed by Pakistan according to a PEW study based on 2010 figures.
Consequently, it is a distressing paradox for adherers of Islam to see themselves reduced to social castaways or political liability. After centuries of colonial subjugation, there was consensus among India’s principal political parties that accommodating Muslims in social and political spheres was not just a necessity but ethically obligatory.
Much political thought of the era was symbiotically connected with Gandhian moralism and after his assassination, Mahatma’s memory had to be kept alive by propagating values he preached in his lifetime. Honour and dignity for India’s minorities and other marginalized was uppermost among these principles.
Yet, after independence every political party chose hypocrisy, selecting candidates for elections with an eye on the caste equation but refrained from advocating caste-based identities brazenly.
This was also deemed as appreciation for not following millions of co-religionists into Pakistan. Muslims who chose to stay back and not migrate required assurance that their decision was not wrong or based on ill-founded belief.
However shrill may have been the nature of political contestation among antagonists during elections or in between them, there was agreement that this was a land where agar kabhee tilak lagana parta hain, to kabhee topee pahanna hota hai (if on occasions you had to sport a vermillion mark on the forehead as Hindus do after praying, you also had to don the skull cap like Muslims during social and religious gatherings).
Such rich symbolism has been put in the past. It is now perturbing to witness wearing Hinduism on the sleeves becoming the norm. Equally, disparaging Islam and Muslims has assumed epidemic proportions. For several years, more acutely since 2014, no national leader or claimant to positions of pre-eminence is willing to run the risk of not professing
love for profound and nominal Vedic theories and donning religious images and motifs.
Hinduism in India has witnessed centuries of social reform movements. These gained ground over the past two hundred years after groups of ‘enlightened’ Hindus in Bengal began canvassing for proscription of cold-blooded public murder of widows, euphemistically termed practise of Sati.
Till the early nineteenth century, it was common tradition for Hindu women to be goaded to sit on the pyre of their deceased husbands and burn alive. Since then, there were waves of reform movements seeking widow remarriage, raising age of consent, declaring child marriages as illegal, giving women right to hereditary property and modernisation of divorce laws.
But above all, leaders of various ideological orientations campaigned against the caste order that created a hierarchy of four major castes — Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (labourers). Early campaigners against the hereditary caste system canvassed for right of untouchables, so low on the social ladder that they were outcastes or not assigned a caste, to enter temples.
Indian politics has seen the likes of Mahatma Gandhi who coined the term, Harijan (God’s people), for untouchables. There were others too like Dr BR Ambedkar, himself from an untouchable caste who was discriminated in school, who fought for rights of Depressed Classes — as Harijans were then called — under colonial order and was eventually chairman of Indian Constitution’s Drafting Committee.
Yet, after independence every political party chose hypocrisy, selecting candidates for elections with an eye on the caste equation but refrained from advocating caste-based identities brazenly.
Congress jumps onto the Temple hopping Bandwagon
Not anymore. In the fall of 2017 when the Congress President Rahul Gandhi, was seriously threatening Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s citadel in Gujarat during state elections, he embarked on a temple-hopping spree — making well-publicized visits to famous Hindu shrines.
When Modi’s party criticized Gandhi for his newfound love for temples when all along his party had been “appeasing Muslims”, his supporters dug up references to the scion’s temple visits since he entered politics in 2004.
When controversy broke out over the Congress president’s name entered as non-Hindu at the famous Somnath temple, subject of much political and historical dispute, a party spokesperson clarified Rahul Gandhi was not just a Hindu but more — a janeu dhaari Hindu, meaning ‘twice-born’ Brahmin who also wore the ‘sacred’ thread.
It is now perturbing to witness wearing Hinduism on the sleeves becoming the norm. Equally, disparaging Islam and Muslims has assumed epidemic proportions.
This public embrace of the Hindu caste system by an associate of the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister was indeed odd for he laid foundations of India’s secularism, espoused the principle of scientific temper and famously declared: “By education I am an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim and a Hindu only by accident of birth.”
Contrast this self-description with Rahul Gandhi’s declaration of being a devotee of Lord Shiva! In the immediate decades after India attained freedom, Nehru symbolized the face of modernity standing as stoic juxtaposition to obscurantism.
India’s first premier was not alone in this endeavor and was adequately backed by conservative Hindu and liberal Muslim colleagues in his government, partners in shepherding India from the trauma of mind-numbing transfer of population and most importantly, murder of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu zealot.
India’s Delicate Secularism
The assassin, Nathuram Godse, believed the Mahatma had been partial towards Muslims and accepted partition in hurry to ensure Nehru became prime minister. The secularism India practiced, balanced delicately between majoritarian aspiration and necessity of minority representation — a state of equilibrium was achieved but even the Congress put up Muslims candidates from the first election in 1952 onwards only from
those seats where they were present in significant numbers.
This became the norm, Hindus accepted the odd successful Muslim candidate provided they were not ‘imposed’ by parties in constituencies with insignificant Muslim populations. Although the number of Muslim parliamentarians and state legislators was never proportional to the community’s demographic size, this was more than made up by sensitive policies of governments, federal and regional.
Indian secularism was not idyllic, frequent riots were the norm and security forces were often accused of bias against Muslims. Additionally, in the social sphere, barring sections of enlightened Hindus who maintained personal ties with Muslims, most Hindus kept Muslims at arms’ length, limiting interactions to business or the professional.
During the Gujarat elections, when a Muslim in the state of Rajasthan was lynched by ‘cow protection vigilantes’, Rahul Gandhi or other Congress leaders chose silence as response.
Imperfect though, Indian secularism retained the pretence of being a level-playing field. This acted as a powerful moral and political tool against communal forces, especially majoritarian. Muslim educational backwardness too played a role in social segregation of the community. Moreover, turning a blind eye to activities of minority fundamentalists paved the way for BJP’s emergence by giving it the opportunity of accusing other parties, mainly the Congress, of ‘appeasing’ Muslims.
Despite such ‘negatives’, discrimination of Muslims was still considered ‘immoral’ and no political party or leader could exorcise ‘guilt’, overpowering after each violent epi-
sode when principles of Indian secularism were violated. In addition, large sections of Hindus were apologetic about their prejudice against Muslims.
Numerous enquiry commissions were also established to probe episodes of violence and charges of official partiality towards Hindus and apathy towards Muslims. Although there
was little progress in following up on recommendations made by these commissions, failure of successive governments did not have the moral sanction of society.
This, however, is not the case now. Most leaders and parties fear holding brief for dignity of Muslims or other religious minorities. There is worry that advocacy of minority rights can possibly jeopardise prospects in elections. During the Gujarat elections, when a Muslim in the state of Rajasthan was lynched by ‘cow protection vigilantes’, Rahul Gandhi or other Congress leaders chose silence as response.
Earlier this month, while addressing a gathering in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, Sonia Gandhi, who remains the Congress’ most iconic leader despite her son having taken over the mantle formally, confessed a trifle woefully that BJP had successfully “convinced” people that Congress was a “Muslim party”. She spent considerable part of her speech to dispel charges that her party ‘appeased’ Muslims.
Idiomatic change occurring in Indian Politics
This was in complete contrast to a possible Nehruvian response if such accusation was ever levelled against him or his party. He would have indisputably defended his stance instead of offering feeble excuses and fending off the accusation.
A political party, Nehru would perhaps have argued, is duty-bound to protect the weak and who else but religious minorities need be given preferential treatment. A mother after all, is not criticised for giving greater attention to the weakest child.
Neither Rahul Gandhi acquiescing to a party functionary publicizing wearing the Brahminical thread nor Sonia Gandhi’s apologetic assertion, “perhaps rather than going to a temple quietly, may be, a little more public focus on that (is needed)”, are indicative of the ideological shift in the Congress. Instead, alteration in their public behaviour is symptomatic of the idiomatic change in Indian politics.
The Congress party and its top brass shedding qualms about public display of Hindu symbols and minimising public engagement with Muslims to sheer tokenism — the party fielded fewer Muslim candidates in Gujarat than previously — provides indication of the party’s strategy for revival after slipping to a historical low in 2014 when it won just 44 of the 543 elective seats in Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House.
Unambiguously, the Congress party has concluded prudence lies in challenging Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party within the framework it has superimposed on Indian polity
over the past three decades. This is a worrying development because it marks an axiomatic shift in Indian politics. What casts greater import to this shift is the electoral reality of the Congress and BJP, between them, winning an average of 316 parliamentary seats in seven polls since 1991.
The two are also locked in bi-polar contests in more than sixty percent of these seats. These figures have an ominous ring to it: almost two-thirds of India’s political space is occupied by two largest parties, no longer reticent about the country’s ‘Hinduness’ and a corresponding peripheral role for Muslims and other minorities.
Rajiv Gandhi’s role in India’s Identity Politics
Allegations about the Congress courting soft-Hindutva are not new to the party. In the early 1980s, in an attempt to gain political toehold in Jammu and Kashmir, Indira Gandhi during a state election, assiduously forked the state into ‘Hindu Jammu’ region and ‘Muslim Kashmir’ Valley. She also encouraged organising a mass congregation of Hindus primarily to act as bulwark against rising Sikh separatism in Punjab.
Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, on assuming office, first gratified Muslim conservatism by enacting a law quashing a Supreme Court verdict granting rights to divorced Muslim women. Indisputably, to balance this compromise, he paved the way to unlock and allow Hindus devotees to pray at a disputed shrine in Ayodhya, ownership of which was claimed by Hindus and Muslims.
Much political thought of the era was symbiotically connected with Gandhian moralism and after his assassination, the Mahatma’s memory had to be kept alive by propagating values he preached in his lifetime.
The roots of India’s identity politics and the emergence of religion as the principal basis for social identity can be traced to the two decisions. Paradoxically, Congress rarely gained by making concessions to sectarian groups in either community.
Rajiv Gandhi was voted out after just a term in office and Rahul Gandhi’s pitch in Ayodhya for last year’s Uttar Pradesh assembly election swept by BJP, ended on a disastrous note when the party failed taking its tally of seats into double digits. Yet the party’s perseverance with the strategy demonstrates conviction of its leaders that the ‘secular template’ fabricated in the aftermath of independence lies is shambles and will henceforth be just a liability.
Embracing Hinduism versus Hindutva
Recovery of the party, as actions and assertions of the mother-son duo suggests, is being attempted by a path where public embrace of Hinduism is essential while making a bid to demarcate this from Hindutva, the ideology of cultural nationalism and BJP’s credo.
Concerns, however, exist, rightfully, whether such a distinction can be made and even if this attempt is successful, whether the separation will be discernible to the common person who has learnt to see personal religiosity and religious identity more in opposition to Muslims and Christians than as spiritual manifestation.
The axiomatic alteration in India’s politics to a great extent has coincided with the BJP’s emergence as the primary fulcrum in the electoral arena. In the initial years after independence, the hegemony of the Congress was so pronounced that political scientists globally termed the Indian political system as the Congress system.
In the 1980s, when psephology was a nascent science — it remains an imperfect one but that is besides the point — the concept of Index of Opposition Unity was introduced. High IOU reduced chances of a Congress victory while a low score on the index ensured its success. IOU worked nationally, regionally and most importantly, at the constituency level too.
The elections in 1984 was the last time the Congress won a majority on its own. Thereafter, all governments it headed, were either coalitions or were minority regimes initially. The next phase in Indian politics began in 1989 with the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi and heralded the onset of the coalition era. During this period, the Congress enacted every possible role – headed coalitions, extended support to a coalition of other parties and even sat in opposition.
On the contrary, the violent episode of the Gujarat riots created the phantom of Modi and ensured that he emerged as a national leader.
But through all this, the party lost out being the swivel on which Indian politics revolved. This role was usurped by the BJP much before it formed a credible government in 1998. Even before this, party leaders boasted it was the “government in waiting” as electoral alliances, instead of being propelled by the sentiment of anti-Congressism, began to get driven by anti-BJPism.
‘Unity of secular forces’ and ‘defeat of communal forces’ became justifications for diverse parties joining hands. It was similar to non-Congress parties joining hands previously to keep ‘authoritarianism’ at bay. Somewhere down the line the BJP shed its aggressive image and put three most contentious items on its charter at abeyance.
These were immediate construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya irrespective of judicial order, abrogation of Article 370 of Indian Constitution which grants ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir and introduction of Uniform Civil Code.
The ploy worked and the BJP found partners who were willing to look the other side when it was pointed that BJP had not shed its ideology and continued defining Indian nationhood in religio-cultural terms. The BJP between 1998 and 2004 wrote the copybook of managing coalition as it became the first federal coalition to last its terms.
Congress secured power in 2004 but despite prevailing viewpoint, the BJP defeat was not due to national sentiment against the riots in Gujarat in 2002. On the contrary, the violent episode of the Gujarat riots created the phantom of Modi and ensured that he emerged as a national leader.
His rise from being chief minister of a state which elects just five percent of Indian parliamentarians to a dominant global personality is the result as much of his capacities and strategies, as the failure of the Congress to pose an ideological and pragmatic counter to him.
In hindsight, the ten years the Congress remained in power between 2004-2014 were ‘wasted’ years as gains registered by the BJP — since the Ayodhya agitation — in legitimizing politics of prejudice against Muslims and other minorities were not reversed. Instead of focussing on a long-term objective of reclaiming ideological territory and delegitimizing BJP’s politics, the Congress remained fixated on day-to-day issues and power-brokering.
Sonia Gandhi erred by not having a ‘politician’ as premier and instead opted for an ‘economist-manager’ in Manmohan Singh solely because he was a political pygmy and would not threaten to ‘hijack’ the party from son Rahul before he was ready to take over the party’s leadership.
Rahul Gandhi does not have the limitation which prevented his mother from becoming prime minister in 2004 – her Italian origin. In a private conversation with journalists in
February 2018, he indicated that he does not yet foresee the Congress is in position to form the next government. Yet, there are indications that Modi’s re-election is not so certain as it appeared a year earlier.
The Congress took the lead once to argue that religious minorities, Muslims especially, did not have to present ‘double-proof’ of their loyalty to the nation.
Gandhi’s confidence about the Congress significantly improving on its 2014 tally and the sense on the ground suggests that unless Modi successfully creates another wave election — be on polarising Hindutva lines or by fanning ultra-nationalism by heightening regional conflicts — the next elections will see a significant downsizing of the BJP.
Such a verdict would underscore continuance of the coalition era and the 2014 verdict being an aberration than a watershed. Even if another opposition conglomerate poses a healthy challenge to BJP, it will provide Congress with another chance to restore the faith of people in the country’s syncretic and pluralistic heritage.
The Congress has decided this is not an opportune time to reaffirm faith in the path opted for after independence. But in efforts to create a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, Rahul Gandhi will have to remain alive to a bitter reality: the right to spiritual equality is structurally restricted and an inherent feature of Hinduism.
There is also a thin line between staying aloof from Muslims in public and not raising issues which are major causes for concern in the community and pandering to Islamophobia. Congress took the lead once to argue that religious minorities, Muslims especially, did not have to present ‘double-proof’ of their loyalty to the nation.
It remains mute now when this is demanded by fringe forces aligned with Modi’s BJP. Although by 2050, Muslims in India are expected to far outnumber those in any other country, the BJP believes a policy of ‘containment’ will work by securing the backing of a majority of Hindus. The Congress has to decide sooner or later, the extent to which it will soft-pedal on this sensitive issue.
For the sake of India as it has existed since 1947 and prior to the advent of the BJP as a major political force, it is important for the Congress to gain confidence in its foundations the moment it begins recovering lost ground. Despite its present ploy, if no revival is in sight soon, the party will not have much to look forward to. The BJP may have survived as B-team of Congress, but Rahul Gandhi cannot remain Modi’s understudy.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based researcher, author, columnist and political commentator. His books include: “Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984” and “Narendra Modi – The Man, The Times and The Demolition: India At The Crossroads” He writes columns in leading Indian papers and websites, appears as a commentator on various TV channels and is working on his next book; he tweets at: NilanjanUdwin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Global Village Space.