Congress’ decline from secularism to soft Hindutva
By Yogendra Yadav
A gaushala in every panchayat, a cow sanctuary in the state, commercial production of gaumutra, building Narmada parikrama and Ram Van Gaman Path…
This shows the Congress’ slide from secularism to ‘soft Hindutva’. It did not happen overnight. It’s time we traced the decline of secular politics in four distinct stages since Independence.
The items in the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh assembly election have been seen, rightly so, as signs of the Congress’ surrender to politics of Hindutva. Mind you, these promises are not as ridiculous and regressive as these are made out to be.
Animal welfare demands more and better-run gaushalas. Promotion of cultural tourism justifies construction of Narmada parikrama. But that is surely not what motivates the Congress. It is a desperate attempt by the Congress to play on the Hindutva wicket set by and for the BJP. The chairman of the Congress’ manifesto committee was disarmingly candid in admitting that the party was keen to shed the ‘Muslim party’ tag.
This is not the first time the Congress has shown proclivity towards ‘soft Hindutva’. Rahul Gandhi has followed this strategy in Gujarat and Karnataka too. And the Congress is not the only ‘secular’ party taking this path. Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party has promised building of a grand Vishnu temple.
Secularists have responded to this ‘soft Hindutva’ turn in two ways. The more ‘principled’ secularists have decried it as a regrettable slide into majoritarian politics. They believe that secular politics has given up on the more difficult but feasible path of taking on communalism frontally. The more ‘pragmatic’ secularists argue that the Congress has no other option. They see this as a justified but short-term tactic to take on Hindutva on its own terms. So, those who think it is regrettable argue that it is avoidable. Those who think it is not avoidable find it justified. This dilemma and debate is likely to persist right through the Lok Sabha polls. And perhaps, after that as well.
Both the sides are partly true. Pandering to majoritarian sentiments is without doubt a worrisome trend. It may look like a tactical move today, but yesterday’s tactic is today’s norm. At the same time, it is equally true that parties like the Congress have no option today. In today’s context, they cannot afford to take a ‘hard’ secularist position, if they hope to win elections. So, the Congress-style ‘soft Hindutva’ is both regrettable and necessary. Secular politics has no one except itself to blame. What passes for secular politics has made no room for itself to take principled secular positions. The mid-point of public opinion is simply not prepared for hard secular policies and politics. Not to put too fine a point: secular politics is paying for its sins.
The slide from politics of conviction to politics of capitulation did not happen overnight. I suppose there are four stages that brought secular politics, step-by-step, to the current impasse. You may also see these four as tendencies that have existed within secular politics right from the beginning.
Secular politics began as politics of conviction. In the aftermath of Partition, it was courageous, almost heroic, to uphold the idea that India is not a Hindu Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi’s supreme sacrifice and Jawaharlal Nehru’s popularity created an unusual condition for passage of legislation like the Hindu Code Bill. To be sure, there was already a disconnect between secular politics and the sensibility of an ordinary, believing Hindu. But an undercurrent of Hindu unease, especially among the Partition ‘refugees’ who suffered its violence, did not matter much at that moment. Muslims were too shocked and unsettled. A secular India was good reason for them to commit to this young nation.
Soon, conviction gave in to convenience. As challenges arose to the Congress hegemony, a large and growing Muslim community proved to be a very useful ally for the dominant party. The Congress leaders realised that securing Muslim votes was rather easy. You just needed to make the right noises, extend some symbolic concessions and keep the Muslim clergy happy. Politics of Muslims as vote bank and policies aimed at appeasement of the Muslim clergy were born then. Ordinary Muslims got little out of this, but an ordinary Hindu began to notice ‘preferential treatment’ of the Muslims.
The third phase was the worst, as convenience turned into an electoral and political compulsion for secular politics. The Congress began to lose elections as large groups like the OBCs moved towards the opposition. Now, assured Muslim vote was critical to the Congress’ survival. The surest way of doing so was to keep Muslims insecure. And lest they forget their need for security, riots happened at regular intervals. Other ‘secular’ parties copied the model invented by the Congress. Unlike other castes and communities, you don’t need to offer education, jobs, bijli, sadak, paani to secure Muslim votes. Just keep them insecure and keep offering them security. Muslims were perfect political hostage to ‘secular’ politics. Anything that pandered to Muslim ‘sentiment’ as defined by its leadership was kosher, as secular politics was seen to be pro-minority. Any party opposed to BJP could call itself secular. Hindus were distracted by caste politics that was presented as social justice. The results were disastrous: Muslims kept receding into backwardness while Hindus resented the appeasement of minorities.
This set the stage for what we see today: capitulation of secular politics. The Ayodhya movement busted the duplicity in secular politics. Elections provided enough incentives for a politics of hatred and lies supported by the SanghParivar. Long disengagement with and disrespect for public opinion had left secular politics with little resources to counter these lies. The centre of public opinion shifted towards Hindutva. Secular politics faced a Hobson’s choice: it could take a ‘hard’ line and face electoral marginalisation. Or, it could go for ‘soft Hindutva’ and betray its cause. Some strands of secular politics delayed the encounter with public by playing caste divisions. But the inevitable happened in 2014. No wonder the Congress-style secular politics has capitulated.
We don’t yet know whether ‘soft Hindutva’ will pay in the short term. But we do know that this not the way forward in the long run. Secularism needs to be rescued and reinvented, for secularism is a sacred principle of the Indian Republic. We either have secular India or we have no India. But rescuing secular principles must begin by exposing the fraudulence of what goes by the name of secular politics.