There are many reasons for Congress leaders being more daring in displaying religiosity in the course this round of polls.
Back in 1991, long after Rajiv Gandhi’s mortal remains were immersed in holy rivers and some time after the ballot boxes were sealed in the parliamentary election that was hyphenated by his assassination, a few journalists sat in a sparse room in the BJP office which doubled as dwelling and office for K.N. Govindacharya. The scribes had just begun indulging in “data-data” games with friendly politicians adept with numbers. Mr Govindacharya’s figures were on his fingertips, albeit exaggerated, and he projeced the seats the BJP would win from which state and why.
“At this rate, you will replace the Congress,” one of us said incredulously. He paused, and said with a typical guffaw: “Why replace, we will be the next Congress.”
Cut to October 2015, to the launch of a book on the Indian economy with a former Union minister, a one-time editor (not the one in the news recently) and just about beginning-to-turn-crusader against the Centre Arun Shourie. His scathing attack of this government ended with an apt turn of phrase, this government was “Congress Plus Cow”.
As one read the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh, these two episodes came flooding back into my mind. The more you read promises reflecting the soft-Hindutva line of the party, with several references to Ram Path Gaman — the path Lord Ram is supposed to have taken, the commercial production of cow urine, gaushalas in every panchayat and allocating separate funds for them, establishing temporary camps to treat injured bovines and, if necessary, perform their last rites; the more one is convinced that the punch lines of Mr Govindacharya and Mr Shourie have been turned on their heads.
If ever a Congress government is installed in Madhya Pradesh or anywhere else, it will be a BJP minus Modi-Shah sarkar! At least, this is the prognosis the manifesto promises. From being the other way around, the Congress is on its way to becoming the BJP’s B-team.
Let us begin with just one Congress pledge, and understand what this is symptomatic of. The Ram Path Gaman is a mythical route, believed to have been taken through two contemporary states — Uttar Pradesh and MP. In the former, this is supposed to be from Ayodhya to Chitrakoot, where the legendary hero-turned-god is considered to have spent a part of his 14 years in exile.
The pathway, from modern Faizabad (soon to be legally renamed Ayodhya), passes through the districts of Kaushambi, Allahabad, Pratapgarh, Amethi, Rae Bareli, Sultanpur and Ambedkarnagar in central UP before reaching its destination in the Bundlekhand region. People in MP too believe that a significant period of these 14 years were spent in their state, and the Ram Path there traverses through the forests of Satna, Panna, Shahdol, Jabalpur and Vidisha. The Congress has assured speedy completion of this project, unfulfilled by the BJP government despite being in the works since 2007.
Initially in their Ayodhya agitation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and BJP leaders claimed they would prove the place as Lord Ram’s birthplace. Later, they said there was no need as “Ram was a matter of faith”. The Congress manifesto, and many other practices over the past few years, establishes that the party too has accepted the “matter of faith” argument. Last year, Rahul Gandhi began temple-hopping in Gujarat and there has been no stopping. Possibly, the party is eager to shed what his mother called the “pro-Muslim image”. This time he visited temples more unabashedly. Consequently, it boiled down to a question which should not feature during elections in a pluralistic country: whose Shiv Bhakti is greater — the Congress president’s or the Prime Minister’s?
There are many reasons for Congress leaders being more daring in displaying religiosity in the course this round of polls. In the three Hindi heartland states now voting, the Muslim population does not match their electoral significance in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. These states are more bipolar than the two. Consequently, the Congress thinks it can take the 6.57 per cent, 9.7 per cent and 7.17 per cent of Muslims in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh for granted.
It is debatable whether the Congress could have performed better had it voiced minority concerns in Gujarat or if its tally was bolstered because it did not to articulate their angst. But the Congress’ decision to play along with Hindu sentiments and make promises aimed at appeasing them, and thereby trying to shed its pro-minority tag, is a reflection of a paradigm shift in the country’s political culture.
Post-Independence India lived through different eras, with politics being dominated by one predominant idea. Every party aspiring for power voiced their position around this central theme. For the first three decades or so, the dominant belief was socialism in its various shades — Nehruvian socialism, Lohiaite socialism and Marxist varieties. Even the Jan Sangh, with Ekatm Manavaad or Integral Humanism and Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s promotion of antyodaya (although scholars claim this was not his original formulation), stopped cosying up with right-wing Swatantra Party to enter the political mainstream.
From the late 1970s, with religion playing an increasing role in politics, secularism emerged as the primary pivot around which political lines were drawn — parties were either secular or communal. Once again, there existed several types of secularism — the Congress variety, the Janata Parivar’s (which later splintered into several other shades) and the Communist form of secularism.
Like socialism ran its course and became outdated slowly, secularism as a focal point too faded away from the polity. Gradually, Hindutva became the primary idea. Narendra Modi, in 2014, declared with no trace of embarrassment that he was a Hindu nationalist — something unthinkable earlier. But as with all political ideas, Hindutva too is not unidimensional. Instead, a Hindu nationalistic rainbow has appeared on the horizon. Euphemistically, there are various hues of saffron — that of the RSS, the BJP, the fringe forces and the Congress. Political parties navigate their course through this landscape dazzled by the hues on the skyline. Time will determine if darkness will follow, or if there will be a new dawn.