The meaning of secularism

As the Congress prepares for crucial State and general elections, much will depend on its ideological clarity

Updated - June 30, 2018 12:14 am IST

Published - June 30, 2018 12:02 am IST


As a series of important State elections and then the Lok Sabha election approach, the Congress is being watched for how it plays the secularism card. Over the last three decades, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has purposefully moved to the political centre stage, the Congress has defined its secularism in opposition to the former’s exclusivist ideology. But only too often, it has faltered on the slippery ground of secular practice. Indeed, the party has a history of ideological confusion going back to its opposition, in the mid-1980s, to the Shah Bano verdict to please ‘Muslims’ and permission for the shilanyas at the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya to please ‘Hindus’ — decisions which cost it ideologically and electorally.

Always undecided

As the Congress has lost ground, its leaders have swung between advocating a middle path and plotting a frontal battle against Hindutva. At his first press conference as Prime Minister in 2004, Manmohan Singh had said, “I am opposed to fundamentalism of all types — whether it is fundamentalism from the Left or fundamentalism from the Right.” His studied neutrality resonated at that time with many in a party grappling with strategies to counter the BJP’s no-holds-barred ideological onslaught. But it had annoyed the Left parties supporting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government as well as those in the party who wanted it to pursue a more vigorous brand of anti-Hindutva.

Ten years later, when the Congress lost power, senior party leader A.K. Antony had raised questions over the party’s commitment to secularism, saying, “People have lost faith in the secular credentials of the party. They have a feeling that the Congress bats for a few communities, especially minorities.” Mr. Antony stressed that he was referring only to Kerala, but most Congressmen extrapolated it to mean he was referring to the country.

As the BJP flourished, a stream of Congress members shifted allegiance to it. And, over the last four years, with mounting instances of intolerance, including lynching of Muslims and Dalits, cow vigilantism and ‘love jehad’ campaigns, a helpless Congress has looked on, swinging between taking the occasional potshot at the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and actions that party MP Shashi Tharoor has evocatively described as ‘BJP-lite’.

This confusion was reflected in the party’s stand on former President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent speech to RSS novices at its headquarters in Nagpur. Senior Congressmen had urged him to refuse the RSS’s invitation. After the event, the party’s official response was effusive. Even though Mr. Mukherjee had described RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar as “a great son of Mother India”, the party said his subsequent address had shown the “mirror of truth to the RSS”. A belated invitation was even sent to Mr. Mukherjee to attend the Congress’s iftaar party. In the process, the party embarrassed a large section within its own ranks, even as it sent out a confused signal to the minorities while holding an iftaar party after a gap of two years.

Ironically, a few days after Mr. Mukherjee’s all-things-to-all-ideologies speech in Nagpur, Congress president Rahul Gandhi appeared in a court in Bhiwandi where he is facing a defamation suit for allegedly saying, in a public speech in the run-up to the general election in 2014, that “RSS people” killed Mahatma Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi has also, on his part, framed his battle against the RSS-BJP combine as “ideological” — in line with the party’s official line since the RSS’s formation in 1925, and with the ban imposed on the organisation thrice by different Congress governments at the Centre — after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, during the Emergency, and after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Meanwhile, privately, several senior party functionaries spoke of their disquiet over the message sent out by Mr. Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters. But it was left to former Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tiwari to give voice to it. In a series of tweets, he told Mr. Mukherjee, “You were a part of the govt that banned RSS in 1975 & then again in 1992. Don’t you think you should tell us what was evil about RSS then that has become virtuous now?”

The inflection point

Till the mid-1980s, the Congress, as a big tent party that accommodated a large swathe of political opinion and ideologies, managed its ambivalence on secularism because it was electorally strong. Then came the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Shah Bano case in 1985, the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986, the permission to hold shilanyas for the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989, and the failure to protect the Babri Masjid from destruction in 1992 — all under Congress watch. The party’s inability to craft a well-considered strategy to counter the rise of the Hindutva forces ideologically while accommodating the Other Backward Classes, now riding the Mandal wave, saw the party’s electoral footprint shrinking.

If the Congress failed to see the silent inroads the RSS and its many front organisations were making across the country, winning hearts and minds below the radar — especially between 1998 and 2004 when the A.B. Vajpayee government was in power — party leaders succumbed overground too.

For example, in 2003, Mr. Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil, as members of a parliamentary committee, did not object to the Vajpayee-led BJP government’s decision to install in the Central Hall of Parliament a portrait of Veer Savarkar, who had formulated the concept of Hindutva. An embarrassed Congress, including the then Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed, boycotted the unveiling of the portrait in February 2003. However, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla attended the event, presaging her departure for the BJP the following year.

In 2010, former Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi welcomed the controversial Allahabad High Court judgment in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi case: “Congress has held that the controversy should either be solved through talks or the verdict of the court should be accepted. The court has given the verdict. We should all welcome the judgment.”

A few days later, an embarrassed Congress Working Committee (CWC) stressed that the court verdict did not condone the demolition of the mosque, adding: “The Indian National Congress respects the judicial process with regard to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. However, we must now await the final decision of the Supreme Court as and when the appeal is filed.”

Temple run

More recently, during last year’s Gujarat elections, Mr. Gandhi visited a string of Hindu temples, even referring to himself as a “Shiv bhakt”, and permitted a party spokesperson to describe him as a “Janeudhari Brahmin”, sending out a confused signal to Dalits, OBCs and Muslims.

Today, the Congress believes it can take on the BJP electorally through a carefully crafted coalition in 2019. But will that be enough to preserve India’s social fabric? For if the party continues to lack the will or conviction or, indeed, the intellectual bandwidth to fight the BJP ideologically, India’s liberal democracy will remain under threat.

Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy


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