Will Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Secular Hindu’ Strategy Work for Congress?

Temple hopping won’t work in isolation, but it will be worth a shot for the 3 assembly elections in 2018. 

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Politics
5 min read
Will Rahul Gandhi be able to remind the people of his party’s Hindu lineage before the 2019 Lok Sabha election?
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Between 1921-22, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar completed his book ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ in which, among other things, he sought to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva.

“Hindutva is not a word, but a history,” he wrote. “Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be by being confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism, but a history in full. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.”

In the current political context, however, Hindutva has a cultural identity, and a quite aggressive one at that, that helps mobilise political sentiment.

It worked for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and subsequent elections for 11 state assemblies. The party has monopolised Hindutva, and by extension, the power to issue certificates. The moment someone is seen to be following Hindu rituals – visiting temples is one of them – he or she is branded a clone or a duplicate.

Will Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Secular Hindu’ Strategy Work for Congress?

Is Rahul Guilty of Indulging in ‘Soft Hindutva’?

Given the context, Congress president Rahul Gandhi's temple visits are derided and branded as peddling ‘soft Hindutva’. But is Rahul doing what no other Congress leader has done before?

During his 10-week long campaign, Rahul Gandhi visited 27 temples and won as many as 18 seats in these constituencies. Of the 18, Congress wrested 10 from the BJP.

He launched his campaign on 25 September in the religious city of Dwarka, and although the Congress did not win the Dwarka seat, the party won in each of the seats he visited thereafter –

1. Umiya Mata Mandir in Unjha, which is also Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home town
2. Akshardham temple, Gandhinagar
3. Khodiyar Mata temple and Sadaram Bapa temple, Radhanpur where Alpesh Thakor won
4. Swaminarayan Temple, Gadhada
5. Chamunda Mata Temple, Chotila
6. Ambaji Temple, Danta
7. Somnath
8. Bhathiji Maharaj Temple, Kapdavani
9. Vir Maya Mandir, Patan
10. Bahucharji Mata Temple, Becharji
11. Shamlaji Temple, Bhiloda
12. Ranchhodrai Temple, Dakor
13. Kabir Mandir, Dahod
14. Ranchhodrai Temple, Petlad
15. Unai Mata Temple, Vansada
16. Dev Mogra Mata Temple, Dediapada
17. Valinath Temple, Vav
18. Jagannath, Jamalput-Khadia, Ahmedabad

Rahul Gandhi’s temple run seems to have worked. A conscious effort, perhaps, to follow the prescriptions given by the the 2014 AK Antony report.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi during a visit to Shri Jagannathji Temple in Ahmedabad during the 2017 assembly election campaign. 
Congress President Rahul Gandhi during a visit to Shri Jagannathji Temple in Ahmedabad during the 2017 assembly election campaign. 
(Photo: PTI)

Learning from Past Lessons

After the Lok Sabha debacle, then-party chief Sonia Gandhi had constituted a four-member panel to look into why the Congress had slumped to its lowest tally – 44. At the time, the report was criticised for not holding party leaders – Sonia, Rahul and Dr Manmohan Singh – responsible for the humiliating defeat, but it did hold some crucial findings for its strategists.

According to a 2014 report in the Hindustan Times, the panel found that fighting the election on a ‘secularism versus communalism’ plank hurt the Congress as it came to be identified as pro-minority, resulting in substantial electoral gains for the BJP. The Congress also failed to drive home the point that minority and majority communalism were equally dangerous for the country.

Additionally, the committee submitted that the party’s perceived minority appeasement policy also proved counter-productive.

While frequent statements of some Congress leaders on the Muslim quota antagonised and alienated the majority community, the panel noted that the minority community, too, doubted the Congress’ intentions, arguing that there was a huge gap between programs announced by the UPA and their actual delivery on the ground.
Rahul and Sonia Gandhi during the first news conference after the Congress lost the 2014 General Election. 
Rahul and Sonia Gandhi during the first news conference after the Congress lost the 2014 General Election. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Not just the statements, but the Congress-led UPA government's dogged espousal to carve out a 4.5% quota for backward communities belonging to religious minorities in educational and government institutions within the 27% OBC quota, may have been yet another example of perceived appeasement. Although the proposal would’ve benefited all minorities including Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists, it came to be known as the ‘Muslim quota’. The proposal was seen as bait for winning the 2012 state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

However, long after the Congress stood a distant fourth in the election and the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional, senior Congress leaders could still be seen defending the need for a ‘Muslim quota’.

The course correction of sorts attempted by Rahul should be seen in that context.

History of Using Its Hindu Cred as a Political Tool

The Partition of India, the slaughter of innocent Muslims during Operation Polo and the subsequent subterfuge around the Sunderlal Report, the Hindu Code Bills – these were all the acts of a Congress party run by Pandit Nehru that functioned as an umbrella organisation, but remained wedded to the core of Hinduism.

If Indira Gandhi was seen wearing tilak and rudraksh beads, bowing to godmen, Rajiv Gandhi was responsible for unlocking the disputed structure at Ayodhya, partnering with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to conduct the Shilanyas at the Babri Masjid and also reversing the Supreme Court order allowing alimony to a 62-year-old divorced Muslim woman. Rahul's predecessors vacillated between covert to overt Hinduism with accompanying symbolism.

In the run-up to the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi launched his poll campaign from the Dugdheshwarnath Temple in Deoria where pictures showing him with a forehead smeared with red tilak were widely circulated. The rout the party and its ally, the Samajwadi Party, suffered would indicate that as an election strategy, temple hopping cannot work in isolation.

Will the strategy work in states going to polls in 2018? Of the eight states due for elections in 2018 – Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh. Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura – reminding the people of the Congress' Hindu credentials may work only in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

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