Political parties are hard to change. Narendra Modi would like to give the BJP a makeover as a party of inclusive development, championing Dalits and women. But BJP members are obsessed about the Taj Mahal being a foreign monument. They worry more about cows than about humans. As the next general election nears, Modi will have to tell his followers to listen to him or lose a few Uttar Pradesh seats.
The Congress is also going through a makeover. Sonia Gandhi came into politics reluctantly. Once she plunged, she simplified Congress ideology to two pillars — secularism and Garibi Hatao. The first meant not just respect for Muslims but avoiding any gesture of approval of Hinduism. The second involved creating entitlements at every opportunity. She did not need any further nuances. It worked for her and she led the UPA to two victories.
But the penny has now dropped. Modi is the brand to beat. As the Americans say, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. So we saw the first sign of Hindutva lite during Rahul Gandhi’s Gujarat campaign. Openly and with fanfare, Rahul began his campaign at a Hindu temple. Many more temple visits were carefully planned and flagged throughout his Gujarat stay.
This is as much of a revolution in Congress ideology as the BJP becoming pro-Dalit. The Congress was never anti-Hindu. But in public demonstration of its ideology, it leaned over so much to protect the Muslim minority that it looked like a deliberate neglect of Hindus. It did not matter while the Dynasty was producing winners — Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. But the Congress hegemony was lost in 1989 and has never been regained. Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power in 1998 to the shock of the secularists ruling for six years.
It was Sonia Gandhi’s determined campaigning in rural India which exposed the problem with the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ boast. ‘Congress ka haath, Aam Aadmi ke saath’ was the winning slogan. In 2014, Modi added one hundred seats to Vajpayee’s with ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas’. The Congress had finally lost the silent Hindu majority.
Now in its own way, the Congress has realised that to win more seats, let alone a majority, it has to be Hindu-friendly. It is an obviously good idea. But the Congress is still shy shouting about this change. (Party spokespersons will deny what I am saying here.) But secularism was never meant to be anti-religion and certainly not anti-Hindu. But steadily through Indira Gandhi’s days with prominent Left backing, the Congress began displaying a disdain for things Hindu. You could celebrate Eid with Iftaar parties but not Diwali, let alone Navratri. In ancient history, Ashoka apart, no other King got an honourable mention. In poetry it was Kabir rather than Surdas or Tulsidas who was the approved poet of the secularists.
The Gujarat elections should be the one worth watching. It will be the first test of the newly packaged Congress with Rahul Gandhi leading the campaign. For the BJP, the issue is the absence of Modi after three successive election victories. Gujarat politics is not just faction-ridden. It is one where individuals jump from the Congress to the BJP and back again. They smell who is going to win and change their colours.
Can the BJP retain Gujarat without Modi as chief minister? Wait and see.