Watching Rahul Gandhi going from one temple to another, donning a teeka
on his forehead, flaunting his Hindu-ness is a fascinating experience. As a political activist who has contested elections, I can share with you that visiting religious places while campaigning almost becomes a second habit. So I am not surprised at what Rahul Gandhi is doing. What surprises me is the deliberate projection by his party and him that he is a "Hindu". In the past, Rahul Gandhi has been shy about his religion. One can therefore legitimately ask - has Rahul changed his style of campaigning? Is he more confident now of himself? Has he arrived as a leader? And in wearing his Hindu-ness on his sleeve and forehead, is he offering a glimpse at a larger political strategy? Is this a temporary shift only to impress the voters of Gujarat who are considered more religious? Has the Indian National Congress finally accepted the challenge that the BJP/RSS can't be allowed to hijack religion?
With the 2014 election, two things happened simultaneously - 1) The BJP successfully sold the idea that India is a Hindu country and its sensibility can't be ignored; 2) The BJP also succeeded in convincing a larger section of the populace that Muslims are in a minority and they no longer have the bargaining power vis-a-vis the success or failure of a political party. The theme of both the summations is religion. Since then, the BJP has succeeded in painting the Congress to be a "Muslim" party which is only concerned about Muslim votes, in the last 70 years, it has only appeased Muslims and taken Hindus for granted. The BJP's success lay in its campaign to revive the "two-nation theory" during elections. Their strategy was simple - the BJP represents Hindus who are 82% of the population and the Congress represents Muslims who are only 18%. It was clever exploitation of a baser instinct of human emotions. Before the Gujarat elections, this was the biggest conundrum which Rahul/Congress was trying to solve. Gujarat turned out to be the ideal battleground for Rahul to shed his religious inhibitions.
Those inhibitions are easily understood. He carries the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, his great-grandfather, a die-hard secular who held that religion and politics should not be mixed. Nehruvian secularism forbade him from visiting religious places while holding constitutional positions. He advised the then president of India Dr Rajendra Prasad from going to the Somnath Temple for its inauguration after renovation. Rajendra Prasad was a religious man and a practicing Hindu and he ignored the Prime Minister's advice. Nehru did not like that. This was also the time when communism as the dominant ideology had banished religion from the public sphere. Nehru and his generation were influenced by communism and in secular polity. But Rahul's grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was a realist. She had no inhibitions in visiting temples. She used to consult all kinds of religious men. Unlike her father, she was a religious person. But to her credit, she never overtly exploited religion for political gains.
Rahul's father, Rajiv Gandhi, was a modern man but was politically naive and confused. He tried to manage Hindus and Muslims both and failed miserably; the country is paying a very high price for his reversing the Supreme Court order on the Shah Bano case and unlocking the gates of Ram Janmabhoomi
. Rajiv's strategy boomeranged. The Congress became suspect in the eyes of a section of Hindus which proved to be fodder for communal politics in the post-Rajiv era. The BJP played with the sentiments of the people which ultimately led to the consolidation of Hindu votes culminating in Modi at the centre and the downfall of the Congress as a party.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at the Somnath Temple in Gujarat
This led to Rahul's dilemma: should he take the route of his great grandfather, Nehru, or follow the footsteps of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi? He chose neither. Nehruvian secularism is dead after the demise of communism. Negation of religion is no longer an option. At a time of robust and aggressive Hindutva, there is no taker for the subtle Hindu-ness of his grandmother. Rahul opted for a more assertive line which signals that he is more confident of himself.
I have written in my book The Gladiator, the Crown Prince and the Hope
- "With the assertion of Hindutva as a political philosophy by the BJP since the early 1990s, a section of the Congress party has been advocating a relook at the Congress's stand on communalism and secularism." Veteran Congress leader V N Gadgil used to say, "While appeasing Muslims, we should not forget Hindus who are a majority in this state...Muslims constitute only 18% of the vote share. Even if all of them vote for Congress the party will not return to power. We can't go on ignoring the sentiments of 82%."
It appears Rahul has found sense in Gadgil's argument and wants to shed the tag of the leader of a "Muslim" party. If this is true, then it is a paradigm shift, a major ideological course-correction in the Congress. As of today, it looks true enough. The Congress has no qualms in saying that Rahul is a janeu
-wearing Brahman. Indira Gandhi used to wear Rudraksha beads but she never talked about it. The important question is will this change bring the Congress any dividend? Will it be electorally beneficial? Or will it end in further confusion in the rank and file of the party? Can the Congress feast on the BJP's strength?
Gujarat is the original laboratory of Hindutva. The RSS has been trying to replicate a similar model in other states. Modi's success lies in transforming the crude Hindutva of Golwalkar into a development model; he packaged Hindutva with economic growth, a transformational strategy to make India great. Along with Hindutva, as a good salesman, he marketed Gujarat's development. Today, the people of Gujarat are unhappy. There is huge disappointment and disenchantment with the BJP government. The BJP's Hindutva no longer gives them solace. They are looking for an alternative. But the question is can Gujarat gamble on Rahul, who is not an original Hindu icon? Why should they be lured by Rahul's new style? What is the guarantee that Rahul won't go back to "Minority-first" policies? Rahul's success hinges on handling these questions.(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.