Over the last two years, the Congress has indulged in what some observers have derisively called “soft Hindutva”. During the recent state election campaigns in Gujarat as well as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi visited dozens of temples and presented himself as a Shiv bhakt.
Beyond optics, the Congress has begun flirting with some of the BJP’s favourite campaign themes. The party manifesto in MP promised to build gaushalas (cow shelters), develop commercial production of gaumutra (cow urine) and cow dung, promote the Ram Van Gaman Path (the path that Lord Ram took during his exile from Ayodhya), pass laws that would conserve India’s sacred rivers, and promote Sanskrit. The deputy speaker of the Vidhan Sabha and manifesto committee chair, Rajendra Singh, admitted that the Congress was adopting this platform in response to BJP pressures: “The BJP used to brand us as [a] Muslim party. It’s a conscious decision to shed that tag thrust on us by our rivals.”
As a result, the Congress manifesto in the state differed vastly from the previous one issued in 2013. Five years ago, the party devoted a whole section to the “Minority Community”, in which it promised to furnish special economic assistance to provide modern education in madrasas, a new law to curb communal violence, and the implementation of the Sachar Committee recommendations.
This trend is partly reconfirmed by the party’s strategy in ticket distribution. The Congress has recently refrained from fielding large numbers of Muslim candidates. In 2014, it nominated only 27 Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, a paltry 5.6 per cent of its total candidates. But this underrepresentation of Muslim candidates needs to be qualified at the state level: The Congress has nominated very few Muslims in critical states like Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, MP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu. But in other states, the proportion of Muslim candidates approximated or exceeded the proportion of Muslims in the general population, like in Kerala (16 per cent), Assam (22.9 per cent), Bihar (24.3 per cent), UP (19.2 per cent), and West Bengal (32.6 per cent). In all these states, except Assam, the percentage of Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress has increased recently. In fact, it is only in two-party states where the Congress faces off against the BJP, that the party likely made a strategic decision on the grounds that the minority community has no other choice but to vote the Congress for defeating the BJP.
The underrepresentation of Muslims among Congress candidates needs to be qualified in two other ways. First, the BJP’s underrepresentation of Muslims is far more significant. Second, the Congress has never nominated many Muslim candidates, even under Nehru and Indira Gandhi, largely because of the steady influence of Hindu traditionalists at the state level. But under Nehru and Indira Gandhi (at least till the 1970s), this state of things did not significantly undermine the secular identity of the Congress.
In fact, over the years, the Congress has retained its secular image for several reasons: The secular credentials of many of its top leaders (often more secular than party cadres and state-level figures); its propensity to nominate a large number of Muslims in certain states; its branding, by the BJP, as a “Muslim party” in order to discredit the Congress in the eyes of the Hindu majority; and its concern — at the top level — with the socioeconomic conditions and physical security of minority populations.
The acid test for measuring the degree of Congress secularism today has less to do with symbolic gestures (like temple visits) and the representation of Muslims in assemblies than with concrete public policy. To date, the party has not moved decisively to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee report, at least in part due to pressure emanating from the Sangh Parivar. Whether Congress-led governments at the state-level will draw inspiration from this report will be one important indicator of how resilient Congress secularism is. A second benchmark is the well-being of Muslim citizens. Whether Congress-run state governments provide security to minorities and restore their trust in state institutions, including the police, will be an important measure of the party’s secular credentials. Here again, the situation varies from one Congress-ruled state to another, according to the party leaders’ capacity to resist Hindu nationalists’ pressures.
After the Congress won the 2018 elections in MP, the BJP immediately accused the state government of discontinuing the mass recitation of “Vande Mataram” at the Secretariat on the first day of every month — a practice the BJP had introduced in 2005. The new Congress chief minister, Kamal Nath, responded by announcing a “bigger Vande Mataram event”. More importantly, the MP police arrested three Muslims accused of cow slaughter under the National Security Act (NSA). Interestingly, one of the accused was arrested under the Bajrang Dal’s pressure.
The Deputy Chief Minister of the Congress government of Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, disagreed openly with this attitude: “It is fine to protect animals that are sacred and I believe in that too, but I think we could have done a better job by prioritising those issues first [including ‘the dignity of fellow human beings’] and then taken on the cow issue”. Such discordant voices offer an illustration of the traditionally multifaceted character of the Congress regarding secularism.
Not only have state units of the Congress traditionally tended to differ from each other ideologically, but the contrast between the secular attitude of the top leadership and the Hindu traditionalism of the local party bosses was striking as early as the 1950s. This constant has been illustrated by the Congress attitude in the Sabarimala controversy. Kerala Congress leaders opposed the Supreme Court’s decision, like the BJP, in the name of Hindu tradition. But Rahul Gandhi openly contradicted their stand in the name of equality. However, after months of agitation — mainly by the BJP’s Kerala unit — he diluted his position saying that he was not “able to give an open and shut position on this (question)”.
Whether the party leadership will impose a coherent line remains to be seen, but its ambivalence on the secularism question may not solely depend on the popularity Hindu nationalism has acquired. Indira Gandhi indulged in similar ambiguity and the Congress of the 2010s is probably not compromising its secularism more than in the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi inaugurated the VHP-sponsored Bharat Mata Mandir and when some of its state units remained dominated by Hindu traditionalists (who, for instance, prevented Urdu from being recognised as a state language in UP until 1989).
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 13, 2019, with the title ‘Secular isn’t a label’.