The party of Hinduism?

Liberals hoping that Rahul Gandhi’s Congress would rescue them from Hindutva may be in for a rude awakening The stage is all set for Assembly elections in five States — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana. Described as a ‘semi-final’ for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they offer a foretaste of the electoral strategies likely to be on view next year. Though State and national elections often have their own specific dynamic, some useful inferences may be drawn from the campaigns of the national parties, especially the Congress. An important conundrum is whether the Congress can emerge as a meaningful alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu majoritarian politics. On the evidence of its campaign so far, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the party appears to have chosen the path of least resistance. Given that these two States also happen to be among those where the BJP’s Hindutva dimension is in full bloom, they presented the Congress with a good opportunity to test its political counter to the divisive agenda of its adversary. The combination of high anti-incumbency and a two-way contest with the BJP meant that the Congress could have taken the ideological battle to the Sangh Parivar. Wooing the upper castes But the Congress did nothing of the sort. It steered clear of the BJP’s majoritarian depredations, and opted to woo the same upper castes that constitute the BJP’s core vote base. It has embraced what has come to be known as ‘soft Hindutva’. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, the Congress has promised to build cow shelters in every village if voted to power — this in a State where desperate farmers were fired upon by the administration. In Kerala, its State unit has played along with so-called religious sentiment, opposing the entry of women (between the ages of 10-50) in Sabarimala instead of standing by the constitutional principle of equality. In Rajasthan, too, the Congress’s game plan is to retrieve the upper caste vote from the BJP. Hindutva politics has queered the pitch in such a way that today no party can specifically woo the savarna voter without pandering to communal sentiment. In effect, this means not confronting the infusion of religion into the heart of democratic politics. Conversely, challenging it would require two things from a party: certain ideological non-negotiables, among which, in the case of the Congress, would be the Nehruvian legacy of secularism and a politics of caste rooted in the principle of social justice. Given the cynicism that has become commonplace in public discourse, it is fashionable to scoff at any expectation of principles in politics. But it is delusional to imagine that the very realpolitik that unleashed the genie of communal hatred on national politics will also be able — now that its disruptions are coming home to roost — to put that genie back into the constitutional bottle. In fact, the most troubling takeaway from the Congress’s approach to these Assembly polls is that even an outright victory for a Congress-led alliance in 2019, however improbable it may seem at present, may not really signify a defeat of communal forces.

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