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Lessons Rahul Gandhi should learn

By Ajaz Ashraf

Congress president Rahul Gandhi should take a cue from Aam Aadmi Party leaders who have, unlike him, been tackling Hindutva without endorsing a softer version of it. Gandhi’s flaunting of his Hindu identity over the past couple of years has received support even from left-liberals: they have veered around to believing that a competitive show of religiosity is the secularist’s only weapon to fight Hindutva.

This sentiment was articulated by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor at the Times Litfest in Delhi on Sunday, when he justified Gandhi’s temple visits ahead of various state elections. “For the longest time, we [Congress] felt it unseemly to parade our private beliefs publicly,” he said. This discretion of the Congress allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party to project the political battle as one between “true Hindus and godless secularists”, he claimed.

Tharoor went on to articulate what has increasingly become the left-liberal’s conventional wisdom. “… In a country where religiosity is deep, if the debate is framed that way, the secularists will always lose,” he said. “So we decided that it was time for us to avow our faith, but to do so within the framework of inclusiveness.”

Gandhi, however, has gone far beyond a mere avowal of faith. He has been portrayed by his party as a sacred thread-wearing Brahmin, a man who knows his gotra (or lineage), a Shiv bhakt who was saved from certain death all because he remembered Lord Shiva when, in April, the plane in which he was travelling lost height. At this remembrance of Shiva, the plane miraculously stabilised.

It is not for anyone to doubt Gandhi’s intense religious experience. Yet, his decision to politicise it is perturbing. This is because Gandhi’s temple visits have segued into his party appropriating some of the defining symbols of Hindutva politics. For instance, the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh, where elections were held on November 28, promises to develop the Ram Van Gaman Path Yatra or the route Ram is said to have taken during 11 of the 14 years he spent in exile in the state. Even more difficult to fathom is the Congress’ promise to begin, if it were to come to power, the commercial production of cow urine.

Congress leaders presumably feel it is futile to propagate Nehruvian secularism. Just how wrong they are is obvious from the manner in which Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal invoked India’s first prime minister in his speech at the inauguration of the Signature Bridge, a cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge over the Yamuna in the city, on November 4.

Kejriwal emphasised the central role Nehru played in laying the foundation for turning India, a backward country at Independence, into a modern nation-state. He listed the institutions Nehru built to promote science and technology – the Steel Authority of India or SAIL, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited or BHEL, the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, Indian Institutes of Management in Calcutta and Ahmedabad, and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, among others.

No doubt, Kejriwal took the opportunity to tom-tom the 6,500 new classrooms his government has built, saying each of these was a temple as the children studying in them would go on to work for the country’s development. He cautioned the audience: “If you are to get swayed by the politics of mandir-masjid, your children will not become engineers but pujaris in temples.”

This intervention by Kejriwal is not the first of its kind by his party. On the day Tharoor defended Gandhi’s temple visits, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia appeared on a show on NDTV. Asked about the BJP’s renewed campaign to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, Sisodia said, “Ask both Hindus and Muslims and if both the communities agree, then build a university there.” Sisodia emphasised that education was the only way to create Ram Rajya.

Both Kejriwal and Sisodia’s strategy of countering Hindutva plays upon the memory of Nehru’s inauguration of the Bhakra Nangal Dam in Punjab, when he spoke of the “temples of modern India”. His was a reference to the dams, scientific research institutes, power and steel plants that were being furiously planned to insert India into the frame of modern nation-state.

By invoking Nehru’s idea of temple and linking it to Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Ram Rajya, the Aam Aadmi Party has not only reinterpreted history, but also reposed their faith in the people’s ability to distinguish whether politics of progress or that of religion is in their larger interest. This is the kind of conviction Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great grandson, should display.

The Hindu Right has been present in the political arena since Independence. Economic liberalisation and the ensuing retreat of the state from the social sector, such as from public health and education, has coincided with the rapid rise of Hindutva. Over the last four years, Hindutva and neoliberal economic policies have become conjoined.

This is precisely what many writers forget when they take heart from the slew of economic proposals in the Congress manifesto for Madhya Pradesh. But that is the nub of the problem – the Congress is imitating the BJP’s model of linking religion to economic progress. It could check, even reverse, Hindutva’s rise, but the Congress could get transformed beyond recognition in the process.

They also view the Congress’ promise to ban Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas or camps in government offices in Madhya Pradesh as a positive thing. It is bewildering that the Congress did not go to court about this or organise protests against the Sangh’s appropriation of government offices earlier, instead of waiting to display its conviction only if it comes to power.

Perhaps the Congress is just lazy or unimaginative in countering Hindutva. Or it is plain cynical. Those who oppose the BJP, including the left-liberals, are trapped between its hardline Hindutva and the Congress’ softer version of it. They have no choice but to vote for the Congress in states where there is no third alternative, certain that once the party has won over Hindu voters, it will not venture as far as the BJP does on Hindutva. Not only will this push India’s politics to the Right, the Congress will remain under pressure to continue riding the tiger it has mounted. It would be so much better for the party, and India, to borrow the Aam Aadmi Party’s idea to fight Hindutva.