Opinion: Rejecting Ram Temple Invite Might Hurt Congress Now, But...

The Congress's decision to give the Ram temple consecration a miss is a seminal decision that underlines that the party has finally decided to fight a long ideological battle versus the BJP and RSS. The Ram Mandir movement will go down in history as one that fundamentally changed the course of Indian politics. It was an initiative that challenged the basic premise of the freedom movement, which was based on a clear distinction between religion and politics. There was an understanding among freedom fighters that religion is a private matter and it should not be mixed with politics. This was the one reason that Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel never concurred that the Congress was a Hindu party despite the repeated insistence of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. For Gandhi and Nehru, the Congress stood for pluralism, diversity and secularism, representing every Indian, irrespective of their religious belief.

In contrast, the Hindutva brigade led by Vinayak "Veer" Savarkar and the RSS espoused that India was a Hindu nation in which members of other faiths had to play second fiddle, and had to live at the mercy of the majority community. Gandhi was a fierce opponent of this notion and after his death, Nehru never compromised with this thought process. He was aware that a section of the Congress also believed in the ideology of Hindutva and wanted India to be called a Hindu Rashtra, but Gandhi and Nehru were such colossal figures that these elements in the Congress could never have their way.

The Congress leadership after Nehru, however, was neither so ideologically inclined nor receptive enough to understand the nuances of Hindutva politics. It is no coincidence that after Nehru's death, Hindutva politics started gaining momentum, until it reached where it is now.

It is common knowledge that Indira Gandhi had vacillated between the Left and the Right. If in the 1960s she was inspired by Left intellectuals, then after her humiliating defeat in 1977, she walked towards the Right and had no qualms in showing her "Hindu-ness" in the public domain. This confusion became very pronounced during Rajiv Gandhi's stint. In the 1980s, after the Meenakshipuram mass conversion episode, when the RSS decided to escalate the cause of Hindutva and launched the Ram temple movement through the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Congress was caught in a dilemma on whether to side with the Ram Mandir or oppose it. In this confusion, the party decided to open the locks placed at the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya and allowed a Shilanyas (foundation stone laying) for a Ram temple.

It was because of this confused state of affairs that then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao could not protect the Babri mosque at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992.

Not surprisingly, this was the time the Congress had started losing the trust of the people and had stopped getting enough votes to form a government on its own. On the other hand, the BJP was gaining in strength with every passing day. A party that was reduced to only two MPs in 1984 finally formed a government on its own in 2014.

Now Narendra Modi is the leader of the BJP. He is the most clearheaded politician within the RSS fold. Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, he knows that Hindutva is the only way if the BJP has to gain power and continue to rule the country. There is no vacillation in his politics. On the other hand, the Congress, after its 2014 humiliation, could not decide what to do - should it oppose Hindutva or not?

Modi successfully painted the Congress and other opposition parties as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. During his tenure, the BJP has been unabashedly a pro-Hindu party that has totally marginalised Muslims in politics. Zero representation of Muslims in the Modi Cabinet and not even one Muslim BJP MP in parliament is testimony to that thought process.

A section of the Congress is of the opinion that the Congress should copy Modi's template and be a Hindu party. In the recent elections, Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel pursued that line and lost. On the contrary, Rahul Gandhi is of the opinion that Hindutva is not the way forward for the Congress. If it has to regain the people's confidence, then it has to be seen to be fighting the RSS's Hindutva, which, according to him, is based on hatred towards Muslims and Christians.

Rahul Gandhi has made a slight modification, though. He believes the Congress as a political party should not be seen as anti-Hindu, but a clear distinction has to be made between Hinduism and the RSS's Hindutva. In his opinion, Hinduism is all encompassing, inclusive and does nothing to preach hatred towards anyone, whereas the RSS's Hindutva is exclusive and spews venom towards minorities; if Hinduism is pluralistic and embraces diversity, then RSS's Hindutva is hegemonic and supremacist; if Hinduism is a way of life then RSS's Hindutva is political.

The Ram Mandir campaign was a political movement. The idea was to undermine and discredit the idea of secularism and to win the trust of Hindus to form a government at the Centre and create, in the grand scheme, a Hindu Rashtra. The demolition of Babri Masjid was a declaration that Muslims can no longer claim to be equal and India would be run by Hindus only. This is antithetical to the basic idea of India that was so dear to Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and BR Ambedkar. In this stream of thought, there cannot be any opposition to the Ram Temple; there can be no Hinduism without Ram. Ram is an integral part of India's imagination, its basic ethos of Hindu memory. Gandhi had proudly called himself Hindu. However, his Ram is not what the RSS believes. Gandhi wrote in 1946 in Harijan magazine. "My Ram, the Ram of our prayer is not the historical Ram, the son of Dasaratha, the king of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn, the one without a second." In 1929, he explained in Young India what he meant by Ram Rajya. "By Ram Rajya I don't mean a Hindu State, what I meant is rule of God, the state ruled by divine ... a true Ram Rajya would ensure equal rights to both Prince and pauper." For him, 'Ram Rajya is an ideal state' in which there is no discrimination of any kind based on faith, caste, class and gender.

Interestingly, to define Hinduism, Nehru quoted Gandhi. "If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu...Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is god." Gandhi and Nehru were among the greatest of statesmen the world has seen. Their idea of religion and state can never be narrow. Hinduism for them was spiritual, an inward journey, not ritualistic. Certainly not political.

The BJP/RSS call the Ram Temple a matter of faith, and those who don't visit it will be called anti-Hindu or anti-Ram. It is this narrow construct of Hinduism and of Ram that should be contested. The Congress, by declining the invitation to visit the Ram Temple on January 22, has decided to fight for the original Idea of India. This path can be challenging, difficult and long. It might hurt the party in the short term (which I don't believe), but it will definitely reap dividends in the end, if the party has to regain the confidence of the people. The problem with the Congress was not Ram Mandir but the confusion about its moorings. Let's hope it has rediscovered its real self and remains steadfast on that path now on.

(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.