The Congress’s experiments

Its electoral tactics have logic but its ideologicalstrategy does not

On December 11 last year, Rahul Gandhi was elected as president of the Congress party. Four and a half years after the party’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Assembly election results of five States that will be known today will reveal whether the Congress is still in the game and whether Mr. Gandhi’s time at the helm has made a difference to the fortunes of the party. These results are significant for many reasons. One, the Congress has a stake in all five States: it is the principal Opposition party in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana, and is in power in Mizoram. Two, three of these States are in the Hindi heartland and are part of the ruling BJP’s stronghold: in 2014, 62 of the 282 seats it won were from these States. Three, in the last three Assembly polls in 2003, 2008 and 2013, the party that won these three States went on to get the lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats in those States, too. And four, these results will not only reflect the popular mood in the Hindi heartland, but also in one State each in the Northeast and in south India. That the Congress is testing its own strength in the Hindi heartland before the Lok Sabha elections has a certain logic to it. But its conscious decision to consistently play the soft saffron card does not. Party insiders say this is being done to “neutralise” its “pro-minority” image that the BJP has exploited to its advantage for years. However, that sits awkwardly with its stated commitment to the ideals of the freedom struggle and the pluralism promoted by former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Mr. Gandhi’s rant against the RSS is diminished somewhat with his frequent temple visits and the reported declaration of his gotra: he would have been better off presenting himself as an Indian representing the syncretic culture of the country. Even the party’s election manifesto includes a promise to promote cow urine. What does all this tell the Dalits at a time of upper-caste assertion? What signal does it give Muslims who have been facing a heightened threat to their lives and livelihoods over the last four and a half years? Mr. Gandhi may have united the Congress and pumped energy into it. He has made the party younger too, by promoting the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. But regardless of which party emerges the victor in these elections, by resurrecting Rajiv Gandhi’s brand of competitive communalism, Mr. Gandhi has also helped nudge the political discourse a little more rightwards, from pluralism to Hindu fundamentalism. That will be an ideological victory for the BJP.

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