How to be secular

How to be secular

Antony’s Kerala prescriptions could be a cue for the Congress to reanimate its secularism principle

As the Congress mulls over its historic defeat in the Lok Sabha election, party veteran A.K. Antony’s analysis stands out for its candour and grains of harsh truth. In Kerala, he said that the party’s version of secularism had alienated certain sections of Hindus, and that the idea of equal justice to all communities was often confused with special pleading for minorities. Of course, Antony’s advice was meant for the specific context of Kerala, where minorities are substantively empowered — the state’s 24.3 per cent Muslim and 19 per cent Christian populations are relatively well off, materially, culturally, and in terms of political voice.

The UDF coalition headed by the Congress depends on minority parties, which are often seen to have disproportionate clout in the cabinet, pushing many Hindu castes towards the rival Left coalition. Whether or not this strategy hurts the UDF, A.K. Antony has often, and controversially, expressed his view that the Congress was tilting too far in favour of minorities.

It may be a mistake to extrapolate these views into a national context where, by all accounts, the overwhelming vote for the BJP has at least partly to do with religious polarisation, and where the number of Muslim MPs is the lowest it has been in 50 years. At the same time, it is also a fact that the Congress, with 44 MPs, has clearly been unable to win the bulk of minority support, just as it has failed to convince non-committed Hindu voters that it is the remaining national bulwark of secularism, or that its vision of secularism is an idea worth placing above other values. In fact, it has often been accused of having no vision of secularism other than opportunism and tokenism.

What’s more, there are many claimants to the same secular banner in most regions of India, be it the SP, RJD, TMC, DMK, the Left or the AAP. If it is to remain in the reckoning, the Congress has to fight the perception that it makes instrumental use of minorities, framing their concerns only in terms of insecurity, rather than social equality and mobility, their entitlements as citizens. It needs to revivify secularism, rather than use it as a conceptual sword and shield to differentiate itself from the BJP, while letting it down in actual action.

This is a moment for the Congress to examine the content and pitch of its secularism, and how it can be made into a more supple ideology that can accommodate believing Hindus, for instance, and convince those who are oblivious to the real deprivations that minorities face. Its first challenge is one of imagination and persuasion. The bigger challenge is in living by that belief itself.