The stage is all set for Assembly elections in five States — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana. Described as a ‘semi-final’ for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they offer a foretaste of the electoral strategies likely to be on view next year. Though State and national elections often have their own specific dynamic, some useful inferences may be drawn from the campaigns of the national parties, especially the Congress.
An important conundrum is whether the Congress can emerge as a meaningful alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu majoritarian politics. On the evidence of its campaign so far, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the party appears to have chosen the path of least resistance. Given that these two States also happen to be among those where the BJP’s Hindutva dimension is in full bloom, they presented the Congress with a good opportunity to test its political counter to the divisive agenda of its adversary. The combination of high anti-incumbency and a two-way contest with the BJP meant that the Congress could have taken the ideological battle to the Sangh Parivar.
Wooing the upper castes
But the Congress did nothing of the sort. It steered clear of the BJP’s majoritarian depredations, and opted to woo the same upper castes that constitute the BJP’s core vote base. It has embraced what has come to be known as ‘soft Hindutva’. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, the Congress has promised to build cow shelters in every village if voted to power — this in a State where desperate farmers were fired upon by the administration. In Kerala, its State unit has played along with so-called religious sentiment, opposing the entry of women (between the ages of 10-50) in Sabarimala instead of standing by the constitutional principle of equality.
In Rajasthan, too, the Congress’s game plan is to retrieve the upper caste vote from the BJP. Hindutva politics has queered the pitch in such a way that today no party can specifically woo the savarna voter without pandering to communal sentiment. In effect, this means not confronting the infusion of religion into the heart of democratic politics. Conversely, challenging it would require two things from a party: certain ideological non-negotiables, among which, in the case of the Congress, would be the Nehruvian legacy of secularism and a politics of caste rooted in the principle of social justice.
Given the cynicism that has become commonplace in public discourse, it is fashionable to scoff at any expectation of principles in politics. But it is delusional to imagine that the very realpolitik that unleashed the genie of communal hatred on national politics will also be able — now that its disruptions are coming home to roost — to put that genie back into the constitutional bottle. In fact, the most troubling takeaway from the Congress’s approach to these Assembly polls is that even an outright victory for a Congress-led alliance in 2019, however improbable it may seem at present, may not really signify a defeat of communal forces.
The clearest indication yet that the Congress cannot be expected to counter the normalisation of Hindu majoritarianism came during party president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign tour in Madhya Pradesh, where he stated that the “Congress was a party of Hinduism”. He prefaced it by saying that it was “not a party of Hindutva” but the fact that he felt compelled to paint the Congress in Hindu colours marks a clear shift in the party’s overt political line.
For some time now, there has been a debate on the Congress’s use of ‘soft Hindutva’ as a counter to the BJP’s presumably ‘hard’ Hindutva. Mr. Gandhi’s supporters have argued that what has been labelled as ‘soft Hindutva’ is nothing but a free and open expression of his personal faith as a devout Hindu. Even if this were true, his temple visits, which rarely seem to take place without a photo-op, the recent emergence of vermilion on his forehead, his pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar, and his coming out as a Shiv bhakt, are all gestures saturated with political significance.
They could either be read as a smart political response to the widespread ‘Hinduisation’ of the socio-political sphere, or as an admission of defeat to Hindutva forces, for this is exactly what they seek — an India where Hindu identity would be the starting point of any mobilisation for political power.
Last month, a Rajasthan Minister was booked for violating the Representation of the People Act after he gave a speech asking all Hindus to vote for the BJP. Mr. Gandhi has never verbalised such a plea with regard to his own party. But can we truly characterise his description of the Congress as a “party of Hinduism”, or his embodiment of Hindu symbolism on the campaign trail, as actions in keeping with either the spirit of the Representation of the People Act or the secularism the Constitution speaks of?
There are other aspects of this symbolism-driven ‘soft Hindutva’ that are as troubling: an overriding anxiety not to be seen as sympathetic to Muslims; and a low key yet consistent messaging that underscores Mr. Gandhi’s position at the apex of the caste hierarchy as a “ janeu -wearing Hindu”. The phrase, used by a Congress spokesperson after Mr. Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple last year, was invoked by a BJP leader recently in the context of yet another temple visit by Mr. Gandhi, when he asked, “What kind of janeu-dhari are you? What is your gotra ?” The focus on Mr. Gandhi’s caste pedigree once again reveals how temple politics is never without its attendant caste politics.
Put simply, it gives the lie to Mr. Gandhi’s self-serving distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism, a distinction that is also becoming increasingly popular among an influential section of Indian liberals who, much like Mr. Gandhi, seem to have suddenly woken up to their Hindu identity in the last four years. For these ‘proud Hindus’, one of whom has recently penned a bestselling book on why he is one, the classical secularist position that one’s religion is a private matter and not an instrument to garner social or political capital is, of course, past its sell-by date.
The distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva — which only matters because of the political uses of religion —rests on two premises. First, that Hinduism is inclusive and progressive, while Hindutva is exclusionary and regressive; second, that Hinduism is individualistic and preaches tolerance, whereas Hindutva is a supremacist ideology that deploys angry mobs to subjugate other religious communities.
On Sangh Parivar’s page
While this is, no doubt, an interesting distinction, it is even more interesting that no Hindutva ideologue has ever expressed any discomfort with this definition of Hinduism that categorically rejects Hindutva. If anything, representatives of the Sangh Parivar have been pleased with the transformation of the Congress president into a tilak-wearing, temple-hopping ‘Hindu politician’.
The Congress becoming more ‘Hindu’ is but another sign of savarna consolidation, a movement of which Hindutva is the flag-bearer. Mr. Gandhi’s version of non-threatening Hinduism and the Parivar’s aggressive Hindutva are in complete agreement on one issue: caste. They both want to be the party of choice for the upper castes, and so long as this remains the case, the Congress cannot be expected to operationalise in its politics the principle of equality. In other words, liberals and other good-hearted people hoping that Mr. Gandhi and the Congress would rescue them from Hindutva may be in for a rude awakening. As is well known, god doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves.