Can Congress turn to a form of soft Hindutva and still remain true to itself? Even were such a makeover to be popular, will it enable it to fulfill its role as an effective alternate centre of the polity that is distinct from and in contrast to its main rival, the ruling party in New Delhi?
The recent attempts of the Congress party, most so since the winter 2017 campaign in the Gujarat assembly polls, have attracted much attention. The country’s oldest political party and one of its youngest leaders in its chequered history is bound to make news. Even more so when temples, and mutts stand out in his itinerary, not merely in the rival Bharatiya Janata Party’s bastion of Gujarat but also in the southern state of Karnataka and most recently, in central and western India.
There is clearly a shift in emphasis and style, partly to avoid being painted as a party primarily of and for the religious minorities. The eminent political scientist, Suhas Palshikar, has argued there is a shift from a plural ethos of celebrating and embracing all faiths to an overt and explicit emphasis on one creed, namely Hinduism (‘Temple entry, and exit’, IE, November 30)
But the Congress is by no means doing this the first time. In 2003, in the poll campaign in Madhya Pradesh, its leaders spoke of making the cow the state animal in place of the barasingha. The latter was chosen in 1976 by then chief minister Shyam Charan Shukla to raise awareness about wildlife. By 2003, the party had a different animal in mind, but for political rather than science-based concerns.
More seriously, the debate about the kind of pluralism the Congress ought to pursue dates back to the early years after Independence. In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru crossed swords with Purushottam Das Tandon over the place of Hindi and Hindu in the Congress’s programme. It was the PM who prevailed and took over leadership of the party. The conservatives yielded to the liberal and left-centre elements.
This denouement in 1951 was significant, even more so as the national leadership of the Congress had only limited hold on state units and chief ministers. In Madhya Pradesh, Ravi Shankar Shukla was strongly against “forced conversions”. Similarly, CM Chandra Bhanu Gupta in UP saw highly Sanskritised Hindi, not the Hindustani Nehru (and earlier Gandhiji) favoured as the state’s lingua franca.
In north India, the literati both old and new was largely priestly and mercantile and had a conservative bent of mind, seeing the Congress as a guarantor of social stability and economic growth. The Great Divide of 1969 is often seen as a Left versus Right battle. Yet it is notable how a veteran like S Nijalingappa thought nothing of approaching the Bharatiya Jana Sangh for support for the official nominee for President, N Sanjiva Reddy. Even in the Janata Party that had a short spell in power 1977-79, the old Congress guard and the Jana Sangh group struck a deep chord.
It is clear that its most influential leader in the post Nehru era (now in its 55th year), Indira Gandhi, combined and exemplified both conservative and the plural strands. In the late 1960s, she had to take upon the anti-cow slaughter agitation and within her party, the old guard. Veering to the left, she drew on ideas from a range of actors: The Young Turks, all ex-socialists like Chandra Shekhar, the Communist Party of India, and within the party, Dwarka Prasad Mishra and in the bureaucracy, P N Haksar. The latter two had deep if very different readings of Hinduism but they all joined forces with her.
A decade later, and perhaps even before her return to power in 1980, there was a shift in her rhetoric and style. It is notable how the book, Eternal India has only one photograph of a mosque and many more of temples and viharas. If there was any doubt about a courting of an incipient “Hindu vote”, it became clear in 1983-84 as Punjab and then Jammu and Kashmir became prominent flash points. This is not to say the PM and Congress president became an ideologue of a different sort. In a written response to Karan Singh, she strongly differed with those who made a distinction of the Abrahamic faiths and the so-called non-Semitic religions. She also refused to let go of her Sikh body guards, arguing it would make a mockery of secularism.
Such distinctions were sadly absent in the public mobilisation by her own party. The 1980s marked a watershed. The anti-Sikh massacres of winter 1984 stood in sharp contrast to the efforts of Nehru and Patel to contain the violence of Partition in the very same capital in 1947-48. Of course, the Congress in the 1980s had over 42 per cent of the vote on its worst day, and ruled most of the country.
The massive win of 1984 was shadowed by the post-massacre polarisation and foot dragging on justice for the fallen. In the subsequent years, the Congress gave ground on the Ayodhya issue at every step, even as it rolled back social reform on divorce rights of Muslim women. The policy backfired as became evident in the 1989 general elections.
The dilemma is more acute today. Unlike in the 1980s, when the Congress was clearly the largest political formation, it is boxed in. The idea that it can win over the people via religiosity is not novel. But the terrain has been transformed beyond recognition. Most so since the mass mobilisation of the rath yatra of 1990, the core vote of Hindutva had taken shape.
The base of the Congress has also been undercut both by regional parties but also by groups whose origins lie in caste-based social justice movements. Since the 1990s, the Congress has chosen to align either formally or informally with such parties to counteract the BJP. It wants to undercut the latter via direct electoral competition and minimise electoral contests with virtually all other parties. This makes a soft Hindutva a preferred, though by no means the best option.
Let us be clear on one point. The Congress was never a radical or irreligious force — it sought to create a minimal consensus. But the rights of citizens to live and practise their faith without fear is surely not negotiable. This, with all its limitations, is a historic accomplishment of not just the Congress but the freedom struggle as a whole.
After all, India’s first prime minister yielded to none in his fight against sectarianism. For a party searching for electoral manna, he also holds another record. He won three general elections in a row. And between 1946, when in a limited franchise poll Congress lost heavily in minority reserved seats, and 1952 when franchise became universal, Jawaharlal Nehru won the hearts of minds across all lines of faith.
He did not bend on the core principle of a history that unites all Indians as opposed to an interpretation of faiths that can divide and embitter. One has only to look at the rest of post-war Asia to know how courageous and exceptional a step this was at the time. But Nehru was clear: He wanted to do something not just be someone important. Maybe the party that claims his mantle can also take heart from him. Nehru, not Tandon shows the way.