Rahul Gandhi going to a temple and getting photographed for the larger audience does make a pretty picture. He looked every bit a Hindu. In Gujarat, he visited four temples this week as he launched the Congress campaign for the state election due by the end of this year. Indians are used to seeing Modi at a temple doing his puja, looking like a devout Hindu. So is Rahul trying to imitate Modi, the '"original" Hindu Hridaysamrat
? Does Rahul believe that religion is the only way to lure the voters of Gujarat who are supposed to be more "religious" than the rest of India? Has Rahul learnt any lessons from past mistakes? Has he decided to leave behind the traditional understanding of secularism whose core value is the negation of religion, influenced by left-leaning? Is his a kind of political opportunism, a desperate appeal to a large votebank, or a sudden realisation of Indian realities? Is this the survival strategy that Rahul Gandhi is reduced to?
It seems logical to conclude that it has dawned on Rahul that religion has a mesmeric hold on people across the globe. It is no wonder that Karl Marx said that "religion is the opium of the masses". Gujarat as a state has served as the original laboratory of the RSS' identity politics, it has a long tradition of the use of religion for mobilizing votes. Modi has undoubtedly mastered the art of using religious sentiments to the maximum; it was this craft which won him three consecutive terms before he became the first Prime Minister with an absolute majority in parliament after many years. Modi is the original practitioner of that brand of politics, backed by ideological conviction and with a streak of ruthlessness. Rahul belongs to a different ideology, one which is diametrically opposed to Modi.
Rahul's party, the Congress, derives its sustenance and energy from secularism. The Congress claims to not exploit religion for political gains. Rahul's great grandfather and the first PM of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a firm believer that religion and state should be separate and there should not be any intermixing of the two. Nehru objected to Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, going to the inauguration of the Somnath Temple. Nehru was of the view that the Indian constitution is secular and the President should not be seen to be siding with any religion. It's a different matter that Rajendra Prasad did not entertain his advice and went ahead with his plan.
The RSS/BJP has been criticing Indian secularism since the days of Gandhi. The RSS blamed Gandhi and the Congress for indulging in the appeasement of Muslims and of ignoring Hindu interests for political gains. In the late 80s, L K Advani coined the term "pseudo-secular" to target the Congress; later, the BJP branded the Congress as a party working "only" for Muslims. In the 2014 election, the BJP, led by Modi, exploited this to the hilt. The Congress believes that it is the exploitation of Hindu sentiment which brought dividends to the BJP and helped it replace the Congress as the main and hegemonic party in Indian politics. There is a growing belief in the Congress that it should reorient its ideological moorings and get rid of its pro-Muslim perception. In fact, about two decades ago, Congress spokesperson V N Gadgil proposed that the Congress should come closer to Hindutva. So this is an old debate in the Congress. Now the question is, in the overt exhibitionism of Rahul going to temples, is there a visible sign of a shift in Congress' ideological position?
Rahul Gandhi at the Chamunda Mataji Temple in Gujarat's Chotila yesterday
Look at the picture carefully and it's clear that this is not an "innocent" picture. It is politically loaded. And it is an attempt to convey a certain political message to the people of Gujarat. It is saying that the Congress is no longer a "Muslim-alone-party" and that the BJP is not the only "Hindu party". In Gujarat, Muslims are only 9% of the population. Since the 2002 riots, they are a much subdued community. The BJP does not bother about their votes. This is the model which it is trying to replicate at the all-India level. In fact, it claims that it has successfully implemented this political model of Gujarat in Uttar Pradesh and in Assam and is trying to do the same in Bengal. Now the onus is on the Congress to find an answer to this challenge. Rahul's temple-worship seems to be an attempt in that direction.
But can he succeed? Will his soft Hindutva strategy work in Gujarat? In my opinion, the RSS/BJP/Modi are masters of this Hindutva game and they have no qualms about this and can go to any extent to establish this is their turf. Hindutva does not come naturally to the Congress and to the Nehru-Gandhi family. After the Emergency, Indira Gandhi played this card with success but then one should not forget that:
A. It was Indira Gandhi who was playing that game. And there is hell of a lot of difference between her and Rahul Gandhi.
B. That was a time when the BJP was very weak. Though it was led by Vajpayee and Advani, the BJP then was grappling with its own ideological confusion. It was in two minds about whether to follow hardcore Hindutva or take the path of Gandhian Socialism. It was this confusion which led to the historic decimation of the BJP in the 1984 election.
C. The situation has changed dramatically. Today, the BJP is the dominant party and the Congress is fighting for its survival. The Congress can ill-afford to play and win on a pitch which is friendly to the BJP's ideology. The Congress has to find a new idiom which is concurrent to its ideology and which resonates with its social base.
In Gujarat, the Congress has been eroded completely by the BJP for three reasons:
1) The Congress was led by a very powerful leader called Madhav Sinh Solanki. The Congress doesn't have any leader to match his stature. It tried to borrow Shankarsinh Vaghela from the BJP but was reluctant to give him the reins of the party. Vaghela is no longer with the Congress and the Congress can't spell out who will lead the party in Gujarat. Though Modi is not in Gujarat and Vijay Rupani is the Chief Minister, the image of Modi is what the BJP will ride on.
2) The Congress organisation is in shambles, whereas the BJP, with the active support of the RSS and VHP, is present in every corner of Gujarat. The Congress has ignored its organisation and is a victim of factional fights.
3) The Congress no longer has the social base which Solanki had devised as a formula. It was called KHAM - Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. Today, a section of Kshatriyas is led by a young leader called Alpesh Thakur. The BJP seems to have an understanding with him. The Dalits or Harijans are quite stridently active post the Una episode where four young men were thrashed and filmed and have found a new leader called Jignesh Mewani. Muslims don't want to antagonise the BJP openly. Adivasis are too scattered.
Only two months are left for the election which is not enough time for the Congress to galvanise itself even though there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP. The Patidar community is also angry with the BJP. That may help the Congress. It should work on pulling that sort of lever. The soft Hindu card won't work. Rahul Gandhi has to find another trick.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.