In Defence of AK Antony

Published: July 07, 2014 09:22 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

So what did AK Antony mean? The reticent veteran Congress leader raised a few eyebrows, and some hackles, when he declared at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram that "there is a doubt created by the party's proximity towards minority communities. Some sections of society," he said, "have an impression that the party is inclined to certain communities or organisations. Congress policy is equal justice to everyone. But people have doubt whether that policy is being implemented or not."

"People have lost faith in the secular credentials of the party", he went on. "They have a feeling that the Congress works for a few communities, especially minorities... Such a situation would open the door for the entry of communal forces into Kerala,"

The national punditocracy was quick to react to these comments, suggesting that Mr. Antony was blaming the Congress party's commitment to secularism for its recent electoral setback. BJP leader LK Advani was quick to applaud his Congress rival for "acknowledging" that the politics of "minority appeasement" no longer worked.

In vain did Mr Antony's colleague, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President VM Sudheeran, point out that his leader's statement, delivered in Malayalam to an audience of young Keralite Congress party political workers, was Kerala-centric. "Antony has made this comment with the Congress and the UDF it leads in Kerala in mind. These were well-intentioned and meant to guide the party and coalition in proper direction," Sudheeran told reporters. But despite his clarifications, commentators and political observers have chosen to read a national message into Mr. Antony's remarks, and issued reams of exegesis questioning the relevance and effectiveness of party's secular policies across India.

Mr Antony is probably mortified. He was making a point he had made before: in 2003, as Chief Minister of Kerala, he was reported to have criticised the Muslim community, calling them powerfully organized, and saying that they had secured excessive privileges by their collective clout. This, some reports claimed he said, "could not be allowed". The resultant backlash from Muslim voters may, in some accounts, have played a part in ensuring that Congress lost every seat it contested in Kerala in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

So why would he repeat that ill-fated comment? Perhaps because, in Kerala, it's true. The Congress rules at the head of a United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition whose two prominent constituents are the Indian Union Muslim League, with 20 MLAs to the Congress' 39, and the regional Christian party, the Kerala Congress-Mani, with 11. With the addition of four single-member coalition partners, each of whom has a Ministry, the Congress presides over a government with a distinctly minority hue. The League provides five Ministers to the Cabinet, having won the fifth two years ago after threatening to leave the government if it was denied; the KC-M and other allies furnish several Christian ministers, and the Congress itself includes Christian and Muslim leaders, leaving the "majority community" in a minority in the UDF government. Its opponents, including both the Left and the BJP, have not hesitated to exploit the perception that the UDF government in Kerala is run by and for the minority communities. As a result, the Congress undoubtedly failed to garner a plurality of the Hindu vote in Kerala in the recent elections, even though, thanks to minority support, the UDF won 12 of the state's 20 Lok Sabha seats.

This is what Mr Antony was alluding to in his speech. He emphasised that the perception that the Congress was more inclined to minority interests needed to be addressed. "A situation should not be created in which anyone feels that the party or the government is for someone else," Mr. Antony said. In Kerala (and particularly in my own constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, where he was speaking), this has meant that the Congress has made itself vulnerable to a consolidation of Hindu votes behind the BJP (what Mr Antony referred to as "the entry of communal forces"). The veteran leader was reminding Congress workers that the party needed to allay this perception and win back Hindu voters.

It is easy to see why so many have extrapolated his analysis from the specific circumstances of Kerala to the national scenario. Though it is unfair to Mr Antony to suggest this, his thoughts seemed to echo those of some at the May 20 CWC meeting who blamed the election outcome on the party's "anti-Hindu" image. Outspoken General Secretary Digvijay Singh self-critically stated in an interview on 22 May that "the word secularism is, unfortunately, being identified with Muslim appeasement." Though Mr. Antony never used the word "Muslim," his allusion was understood by all to be to that community.

There is a major problem with carrying this analysis too far. Many Muslims feel the Congress hasn't done enough for them; some feel their socio-economic situation reflects anything but "Muslim appeasement". A few even voted for the BJP, swayed by the argument that a Modi model of high economic growth would improve their fortunes more than Congress' more statist approach. If Congress seems to be abandoning them now in competing for Hindu votes, it risks falling between two stools. A "soft Hindutva" appeal will never win hard-line Hindu voters, while minorities, deprived of a committed patron, might start voting in what they perceive to be their parochial economic interests, rather than to "protect" their community. This could be disastrous for the Congress.

Mr Antony, an atheist and lapsed Christian, is an unlikely proponent of Hindu majoritarianism, however. He was simply enunciating a local truth in Kerala. Nationally, he is the last person to advocate a dilution of the Congress party's historic commitment to India's pluralism and the protection of its most vulnerable citizens.

I know Mr Antony truly embodies the secular spirit in his personal as well as political life. He is right, therefore, to suggest that the perception he mentioned must be managed better, not least by the Congress' own minority partners in Kerala, who should rein in their assertiveness. But secularism itself is too fundamental a part of what the Congress is all about - and what Mr Antony has devoted himself to - to be weakened, let alone abandoned. The Congress will remain secular to the core.

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