Rahul Gandhi has developed into a very pious and religious person. That need not be seen as a problem in a land where over 99 per cent citizens admit to being “believers”. But Rahul is also the president of a political party. So, his religiosity needs to be understood more in the context of the direction India’s public sphere is taking instead of his personal evolution.
It seems that the systematic way in which Rahul Gandhi’s visits to mutts, swamis, godmen and temples are planned and publicised has a clear political objective. Otherwise, why would he be visiting these places mainly around election time? This trend has been evident since the Gujarat and Karnataka campaigns and continues in the current state assembly elections. I have called this Rahul’s “temple entry movement” (‘Congress’ Gujarat Model’, Economic & Political Weekly, January 13). One may say that this is a new packaging of the Congress leadership. But whether the Congress benefits from this or not, we should be asking: What does this mean for democratic politics and the construction of a particular kind of public sphere?
Visiting places of worship is not the only way to search for spirituality; indeed, Mahatma Gandhi rarely visited temples but no one can doubt his search for the spiritual. Besides, at least so far, Rahul has been a frequent visitor to places of worship of only one religion, unlike his grandmother, who, particularly in the latter part of her career, made it a point to visit places of worship of different religious traditions. While she could be accused of pandering to all religious communities, that surely is much better than sending a message that you care for only one religious tradition. While such visits to different places of worship do smack of political opportunism, they also have the ability to connect, somewhat crudely, with the syncretic traditions that India prides in. By not doing so, therefore, the message that Rahul Gandhi gives is pretty clear — that he is a devout Hindu. The act goes beyond personal belief and constitutes a larger message.
The visiting of temples needs scrutiny in the larger political context, which has two elements that are relevant in this regard. One is the constant effort to make religiosity a public issue and enforce the burden of a public display of religiosity on both the lay public and the political leader. Since the Ayodhya movement of the late 1980s, the public display of religious identity and religiosity has become central to the public sphere. This tendency is often confused with the people’s religious practice and local religious identities. In other words, it translates into homogenisation.
The efforts to homogenise Muslims as Muslims preceded this tendency in the majority community and the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation aimed at similarly crafting a “pan-Hindu” identity for different traditions and sects. The success of these efforts to build a pan-Hindu identity led to the other development, viz., the rapidly changing equation between the majority religious community and minority religions. Besides mutual suspicion, there is also an isolation of the minority that has become palpable during the current regime.
In this backdrop, when the leader of the Congress party flaunts his Hindu credentials, what message does that involve? How will Rahul’s New Hindu Congress handle these complications? First, it involves a loss of syncretism. Early in his spree of temple visits, Rahul was asked if he was a Hindu. He missed that excellent opportunity to explain what type of a Hindu he is. Son of a Christian mother and half-Hindu, half-Zoroastrian father, Rahul could have presented himself as a true Indian who loves and follows Hindu practices, and is also something more than merely a Hindu. That could have represented the syncretic tradition. Instead, through his actions and unthoughtful bragging by his party persons, he went on to identify himself as Hindu.
The political calculation is unmistakable. His party is besieged by the idea that it has alienated the “Hindus” and that it needs to recover lost ground. Besides the problematic nature of this assessment, the remedy is much more problematic.
Two, Rahul’s strategy has legitimised what the BJP has been doing for a quarter of a century: “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain”. By exhibiting his Hindu faith, he gives credence to the slippage between faith and community identity. If he comes to power, would he have the ability and the nerve to then shift the discourse on religion from the public political arena to the truly devotional and spiritual? And just as this legitimises the politicisation of Hindu identity, it implicitly accepts similar claims to public identification of other religious identities contributing to an intercommunity atmosphere of distance and distrust.
Three, endorsing mega- or pan-religious identities also means undermining values of individual autonomy and allowing an imbalance between so-called religious authority and questions of reform or individual interpretations of religion. In a sense, the inability of the Congress to take a position on triple talaq, its hesitation over Sabarimala and its pitiable imitation of the Akali Dal in adopting an “anti-blasphemy” amendment applicable to the Guru Granth Sahib, Bhagavad Gita, Bible and Quran are all symptomatic of this imbalance.
Four, and more fundamentally, the new Hindu Congress that the Congress president is trying to shape is likely to deeply affect the psyche of the majority community. Already, the current regime has instilled a sentiment that the majority owns the nation and nationalism involves majoritarianism — assimilation at best and second-grade citizenship for minorities at worst. Rahul and his party may say that they differ with the BJP on this question; that theirs is not a party that will ignore the minorities or relegate them to second grade citizenship. But what the Congress does not realise — or chooses to ignore — is that by subscribing to the identitarian politics aimed at the majority community it strengthens the political culture of majoritarianism.
Whether the Congress approach to convince Hindus that it is not anti-Hindu is “soft Hindutva” or not, the Congress president cannot afford to ignore the effects it will have on this central challenge. His father, through Ayodhya and Shah Bano, sought to be too clever by half and contributed to competitive communalism. Now Rahul may be giving shape to a new Congress that is blind to that central challenge. The electoral rise of this new Congress may mark the final departure of the idea of the Congress — a move toward Congress-mukt Bharat indeed.