With Shashi Tharoor's ”Hindu-Pakistan” remark and a distorted quote — “Congress is a Muslim Party”— attributed to Rahul Gandhi in an Urdu daily, the grand old party’s ideology has come under sharp focus once again.
The Congress has, of late, typically chosen to run away from the ideological debate, fearing it would lead to religious polarisation, thereby benefitting the BJP.
But as successive state elections have shown, there is no escaping the ideological question since the BJP has come to adopt "polarisation" as a strategy to make that final surge whenever the plank of "vikas" comes up short.
The Congress needs to redefine the secular narrative in terms of a pluralistic one today.
In the run-up to the Gujarat elections, we saw a different avatar of Rahul Gandhi, when he embarked on a temple-hopping spree to shake off the image of a “Muslim party” that their political opponents and a section of the media have foisted upon them. Many people then saw it as a “soft-Hindutva” approach, pandering to the Hindutva crowd. Again in Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi’s temple run was supplemented with visits to the places of worship of other communities, making it much more of a secular exercise.
The word “secular” itself has come to mean many different things in the last decade or so. While the word in the literary sense means the "absence of religion", in the Indian context— where 98 per cent of the population is either religious or “spiritual” (according to surveys) — it would be rather imprudent for any political party to profess secularism in the real sense. Even the supposedly "Godless Communists" have had a change of heart, if their strategy in Kerala is any indication.
Jawaharlal Nehru was, in that sense, a fierce proponent of secularism in the true sense of the word. But with the Congress’ massive role in the freedom movement, a weak Opposition and Nehru’s own stature, it did not come to handicap the party in any way at that point. But Nehru’s secularism was more of a personal conviction than the official position of the party. A quick look at his Cabinet colleagues and the debates in the Constituent Assembly and Parliament would bear witness to that.
One has to only look at the tallest Congress leader, Mahatma Gandhi, to see how he could transcend his religious convictions to be a champion of the minorities among others. It was a pluralistic approach (rather than a secular one) that truly embodied the Congress all through the freedom struggle and sustained even during the Nehru era.
Even PM Modi chose to quote the unverified comment attributed to Rahul Gandhi.
It is in this context that Congress needs to redefine the secular narrative in terms of a pluralistic one today, where every community and faith is accorded equal weightage. While the state itself may be secular in the true sense of the word, the party — representing the individuals and leaders — can certainly have a plural identity.
With the BJP adopting hardline Hindutva as a strategy to polarise elections, the grand old party will have to clearly formulate its ideology for the present. More importantly, the party will have to disseminate it successfully to the last mile to prevent any ambiguity. The kind of escapist attitude shown by the Congress in recent times, when questions of ideology have popped up, reveals insecurity and incompetence. It is a clear admission that the party is bereft of good communicators who can articulate their position in such a way that leaves no room for confusion.
When Shashi Tharoor wrote the book Why I am a Hindu, many people saw it as an attempt to play the "Good Hindu versus the Bad Hindu" narrative to punch holes in the BJP’s Hindutva narrative that is based on Hindu victimhood. But the Congress party has not only failed to utilise his writings as a treatise to take on the BJP, but chose to disown his “Hindu-Pakistan” remark as the BJP and the propaganda channels took umbrage to the coupling of Hindu with Pakistan and the comparison of India with Pakistan.
In fact, it was a perfect opportunity to expose the BJP’s doublespeak on Constitution as Tharoor’s fundamental question whether the BJP had abandoned its "Hindu Rashtra" project was lost in the din — as this writer pointed out in an earlier column. Instead, the Congress inexplicably chose to play to the narrative set by their opponents.
When Rahul Gandhi accused the RSS of being complicit in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder in late 2014, he refused to apologise and stood his ground to stand trial after a bit of dithering. While that was indeed the principled choice, it also signalled the stomach for a fight — something the Congress has been shirking away from.
With elections drawing closer, we are likely to witness more of the dog-whistle politics based on half-truths and outright lies to pander to the baser instincts of voters. It has already begun to play out in the way the PM himself chose to quote the unverified comment attributed to Rahul Gandhi.
With the likes of defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and cabinet colleagues Prakash Javadekar and Ravishankar Prasad taking turns to attack the Congress based on this distorted comment, the BJP has shown how they plan to approach the next general elections.
If 2014 was more about "Vikas" than Hindutva, 2019 is likely to be a communally charged election with worse in store. It is time the Congress came clear on its ideology and used it to the party's advantage than play catch-up to the BJP on it. And it is perhaps time to bring the Mahatma back into the national discourse.
Gandhi’s brand of secularism — or pluralism — would be the perfect antidote to BJP’s Hindutva in the present times.