To hold the Hindutva hurricane within constitutional lines, rather like Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP, a cursory look at past equations. There was a time when even the Congress was divided in its perception of a milder BJP, such as in the days of P.V. Narasimha Rao. Rao’s ace adviser, Kerala CM K. Karunakaran, had an understanding with the RSS which he made full use of in his battles with the “Godless” Communists, when the CPI(M) and the Congress had almost the same vote share. In contrast was Arjun Singh’s direct conflict with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. P.V. and Karunakaran were more in harmony, which is why Rao preferred to hand the baton over to Vajpayee, not Arjun Singh.
The events which helped consolidate Hindutva as the force it is today should be touched briefly, lest the perspective is lost. V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal report opened up reservations in government jobs for OBCs. This boost to the “avarna”, or lower castes, was resented by the “savarna”, or upper caste oligarchy, with the BJP’s L.K. Advani assuming charge. To neutralise Mandal, the Ram Mandir issue was raised to fever pitch.
By launching the Ram Janmabhoomi rathyatra in 1990, the BJP was only catching up. Rajiv Gandhi had already opened the locks in Ayodhya in 1985 and announced a “Ram Rajya”. Rajiv presumably did not realise that “Ram Rajya” was fanciful and incompatible with the Constitution. The Hindutva urge to have the “Sanatan Dharma” as a frame of reference for the Constitution is an audacious real step towards “Ram Rajya”.
Around this time, V.N. Gadgil, one of the AICC’s more sensible general secretaries, took me into confidence on an astonishing assessment by the Congress that “a feeling was growing among Hindu masses that Muslims were being appeased”. In 2005, the Sachar Commission said Muslims were lowest on the socio economic-ladder.
The Congress Party’s internal assessment in 1984 was likewise skewed. These election results which brought Rajiv Gandhi to power with a three-fourths majority set the party on a communal slope. Many naively thought it was a massive sympathy wave because of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But the Congress divined the 1984 electoral windfall was actually Hindu consolidation against “minority” communalism. Though the immediate focus was Punjab, what resonated in the pan-Indian frame as a minority were Muslims. That was the official, but unstated, “othering” of Muslims by the Congress. To make up with Muslims, it bungled into the Shah Bano, reversing a Supreme Court judgment which the conservative Muslim clergy were unhappy with.
The reality, of course, was never so straightforward. To oppose the BJP, the Congress found it expedient to wear the badge of “secularism”. But, ironically, to keep the Hindu vote, it decided not to be seen in the company of Muslims. I am a witness to this. During the Gujarat election of 2017, Rahul Gandhi exerted every muscle in the campaign. He did not fare badly -- 77 seats, against the BJP’s 99. To come this far, he avoided Muslim areas during the campaign. To be seen in the vicinity of Muslims would give the BJP a handle to “polarise” the vote. In fact, he went one better: during a crucial press conference at Radisson Blu Hotel, senior Congress leader Ahmad Patel was asked to hide himself in a room in one of the hotel’s lower floors. Rahul had Ashok Gehlot by his side. I could spot Rajiv Shukla too, who makes a cheerful guest appearance everywhere, rather like Hitchcock in his own movies. Later, in the 2022 elections, the Congress did much worse because the AAP walked away with 12 per cent of the vote, leaving the Congress with 27 per cent. The BJP surged with 52 per cent. Congressmen have not stopped cursing the AAP for its spanner in the works. In Delhi, the picture changes. Congress leaders grin from ear to ear every time the BJP at the Centre blocks reasonable AAP initiatives or throws its senior leaders into jail without any proven case.
This being the equation between the Congress and AAP, what does one make of the AAP leaping to its feet in anger when the government crossed the red lines in expelling Rahul Gandhi from Parliament?
Mamata Banerjee’s anger can be seen in a similar frame. The Congress and the CPI(M) are in a three-legged hobble in West Bengal. They want their Bengal jagir back. Last month there was some joy for them when they wrested the Sagardigha Assembly seat from the TMC. Not only did the Congress candidate Bayron Biswas win, he was feted by the BJP locally. With such enemies, who needs friends?
The BJP has set the bar of communalism so high, armed with Hindutva, that all parties (Congress is only one) must keep a steady gaze on the Hindu vote and cajole it, lest the party become an electoral invalid. By way of tactics, all parties must wear spectacles with varying shades of communalism. Will the parties dilute their communal content as and when the BJP’s power wilts?
There’s no sign of that happening. A strategy the Opposition may consider is to curb the desire to defeat the BJP because that raises an insoluble issue: that of agreeing on an Opposition leader. Supposing they lower their sights and think of “containing” the force on a roll by weaving coalitions in the regions, or in any turf of their strength. They can jointly transform the runaway force into a manageable one. The halo that Rahul has been gifted with can give him a head start in the west-to-east Bharat Jodo Yatra to be launched on October 2 -- all geared towards containing the BJP. The results may be surprising.