Over the past few years, the growing incidence of communal violence and social campaigns such as “love jihad” have challenged India’s secular fabric. The ballast for this has been the steady strengthening of political Hindutva, which has drawn considerable legitimacy from accusations of minority appeasement at the expense of the Hindu majority. The Congress party has been the principal target of these allegations. As the party that anchored independent India’s founding principles, the mature response of the party leadership to such charges should have been to occupy the higher ground and remain steadfastly committed to its original secular moorings. Instead, the Congress has chosen to resort to a dangerous combination of soft Hindutva and minority appeasement that is unlikely to enhance its credibility with the wider electorate.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s 25-temple tour during the Gujarat Assembly elections was a good example of this brand of confused secularism. A whistle-stop temple tour as part of the election campaign was a deeply insensitive vote-building ruse for a party that seeks to represent all Indians. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s point that Mr Gandhi’s temple tour was designed to “neutralise” Hindutva and put the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a level playing field betrays a sad cynicism. Attempting to counter hardline Hindutva with a “soft” version of the ideology is pointless and impractical. Indeed, a disaggregated study of the Congress’ unexpectedly decent showing in the Gujarat Assembly polls revealed the rural electorate’s disgruntlement with some of the government’s policies rather than any voter identification with Mr Gandhi’s newly discovered Hindu fervour.
Now, barely a month later, the patently insincere nature of this strategy was revealed in poll-bound Karnataka, one of the last Congress bastions. Last week, it transpired that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had sent out letters to police chiefs in 22 districts to withdraw cases of communal violence registered against “innocent” minorities in the past five years. As a transparent strategy to appeal to the state’s Muslims — who comprise about 13 per cent of Karnataka’s population — this has as little to recommend itself as Mr Gandhi’s temple tour. It has legitimately opened the Congress to the familiar charges of Muslim appeasement and cannot be repaired by a variation of soft Hindutva electioneering that appears to be Mr Gandhi’s sole counter to the growing appeal of political Hindutva.
It is true that the BJP is equally partisan in the way Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is busy withdrawing cases against his party’s politicians, including himself, and many other Hindus charged with communal violence. But Mr Gandhi would do well to remember that earlier instances of ‘beat BJP by being a soft BJP,’ did not help his party. For example, borrowing Shankersinh Vaghela from the BJP in the mid-nineties hardly helped the Congress’ cause in Gujarat. The new Congress president’s biggest failure is his inability to produce a strong and compelling narrative about what the party under him stands for. Mere reactive politics can at best earn him some brownie points and media attention, but it only betrays a sense of panic and the absence of a credible counter-narrative. The Indian electorate has repeatedly displayed an appetite for a credible non-Hindutva narrative. This is the time for the Congress to work out ways to occupy a space that will make Indian multi-culturalism great again.