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Caught in its own excesses

That is the predicament of the Congress, as doubts arise within about its policy and practice of secularism.

Written by Balbir Punj | Published:July 4, 2014 11:39 pm
The Congress came to be seen not as a liberalising force when it came to Muslims, but as a party that kowtowed  to orthodoxy. The Congress came to be seen not as a liberalising force when it came to Muslims, but as a party that kowtowed to orthodoxy.

So disjointed is the Congress party because of its electoral rout that it is now beginning to think with a divided brain and speak in a forked tongue. What other explanation could there be when a senior leader of the party, A.K. Antony, expresses serious doubts about the efficacy of the Muslim appeasement policy and the next moment, its chief minister in Maharashtra announces the same quota sop for Muslims (and Marathas)?

Antony said: “[The] Congress policy is equal justice to everyone. But people doubt whether that policy is being implemented or not. This doubt is created by the party’s proximity towards minorities and such a situation would open the door for the entry of communal forces into Kerala.”

The Antony thesis, which will certainly find reflection in his probe body’s report, is that the Congress leaning too much towards Muslims resulted in a backlash from Hindus and secular Muslims as well. As for why the Muslims, to whom the party genuflected, failed to show their hand even in constituencies with 45 to 15 per cent of minority vote, the Congress is comforting itself by believing that Muslims had divided loyalties among the rival parties that were competing for their vote with even larger sops.

That explains why the Congress is determined to stick to its minority appeasement policies, like giving them reservation en masse. The Maharashtra decision and Antony’s soliloquy are perfectly explainable in terms both of the Congress’s past and its own apparent self-doubt when faced with its policies giving results contrary to what it expects.

The UPA’s two governments were so committed to vote-bank politics that its prime minister went so far as to suggest Muslims had first claim on development funds. But all this did not cut much ice. The election results in Muslim pockets in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Andhra Pradesh were particularly galling for the party.

It was not just the division of Muslim votes. It was more that the Congress lacks credibility for the community and the exasperation with quota politics, which would not get the Muslim youth anywhere in the emerging competitive world. After all, in Seemandhra, there were no rivals for the Congress on its Muslim quota platform after the TDP aligned with the BJP. In Assam, the Congress had hoped that its stand on Bangladeshi immigrants would keep the substantial Muslim vote with it. That did not happen.

A careful post-election survey and analysis of the Muslim vote might be revealing. The quota is no longer a sufficient, or even good, hook. This is true not just in the case of minorities but also among significant sections of the Hindu electorate. For instance, the Jats of western UP, Haryana and Rajasthan did not vote for the Congress, despite the last-minute rush with reservations for the caste group. In fact, the entire Jat group seemed to have turned against the Congress and the party lost each and every seat in what can be called the Jat belt across the three states. If Jats rejected the quota hook, why should we consider Muslims as different?

Antony might therefore be right in doubting the efficacy of Muslim appeasement (he did not use that word) as an electoral strategy. But he may be off the mark in referring to what the election result presented as a Hindu consolidation or reactive voting. More to the point would be the lesson that Muslims (and others) have begun to walk past the quota and other religious guises. The bulk of the Indian population has begun to respond to an all-round developmental agenda, jobs, infrastructure, liveable cities and towns, improving livelihoods. The Gujarat model symbolised that dream and Narendra Modi was seen as the one who would carry out that dream.

That was a contrast to what the Congress represented and offered, the incremental change by a party whose leaders had lost all credibility through a succession of loots of public money. The quota politics was irrelevant at one level and harmful at another for these very same target groups.

How appeasement politics kept people divided was evident when the Congress, with its history of starting the independence struggle with its support to the Khilafat Movement, went on to build a Gandhi-Jinnah national movement that logically led to a demand for Muslim electoral quotas. Then it grew into a demand for Partition under Jinnah himself. And all this resulted in the country’s division, setting one community against the other, and the blood-letting that followed. Even after its basic mistake of viewing every Muslim demand as an opportunity to curry favour with the communal and orthodox leadership and gain electoral advantage led to this divide, the Congress continued to make the divide wider and wider. With the Haj subsidy, the proliferation of madrasas with state funding while Muslims were allowed to ignore secular educational institutions, banning books that the Muslim clergy objected to, the sins of the grand old party were accumulating.

Meanwhile, the Congress leadership was soft-pedalling the global phenomenon of terrorism. Instead of promoting a legal structure applicable to all equally, it was separatism that was being cemented all along — separate personal laws, separate succession codes, religious education recognised on par with secular institutions, and so on.

The Congress delivered the greatest blow to liberal thinking within the Muslim community by enacting a law to perpetuate the denial of maintenance to divorced women, and then topped it with the refusal to apply the minimum marriageable age to the community.

The Congress came to be seen not as a liberalising force when it came to Muslims, but as a party that kowtowed to orthodoxy. When the congealment of orthodoxy was raising the bubble of a past glory and past caliphate as justification for taking to violence, Congress leaders were seen kowtowing to that too. Top Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh happily identified themselves with the suspected terrorists.

Is it fair to describe the May 16 political tsunami as a majoritarian consolidation, as some analysts have done? The verdict was surely a result of the disillusionment with the Congress’s overall policies and a reposing of faith in the BJP’s policies, focused on inclusive development and the leadership of Narendra Modi.

A.K. Antony was only acknowledging this reality, even though indirectly. The Congress might find itself totally out of sync with it. Murmurs within the rank and file indicate rising doubts as to whether sticking to a leadership from within a family is at all the answer to this challenge. That murmur could soon blow as a wind, maybe after the Congress loses the few states that remain with it. A Congress-free India was not just an electoral slogan.

The writer is the national vice president of the BJP

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