The Congress party is tying itself in knots over formulating a “counter-narrative” to that of the Bharatiya Janata Party over the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. The longer its leaders express contradictory views—both on and off the record—the greater the harm to its public image.
Some Congressmen reluctant to let the BJP monopolise credit for constructing the temple, point to the role of two of its former prime ministers; Rajiv Gandhi, for allowing the unlocking of the Babri Masjid in 1986 and permitting ‘shilanyas’ (laying the foundation stone) three years earlier and P V Narasimha Rao who looked the other way while the Babri Masjid was demolished, on that fateful Sunday afternoon of December 6, 1992. Such statements by individual Congress leaders appear incongruous and lack credibility.
Congress Can’t Act As a ‘Sore Loser’
Irrespective of the acts of omission or commission of Rajiv Gandhi or Narasimha Rao – taking any credit for the Temple would only expose it to ridicule. The temple movement was started by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and led formally by some mahants of Ayodhya. The BJP gave it a fillip. When elected to power in Delhi, it got a Supreme Court verdict in favour of the temple. Both the VHP and the BJP are front organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and together they owned the entire movement for constructing a Ram Temple where the Babri Masjid once stood.
The Congress had welcomed the Supreme Court judgment last November on the Ayodhya land title suit. Unable to handle the the Babri Masjid–Ram Temple issue for three decades, the party chose to leave it to the judiciary. Now that the judiciary has decided—and as often happens with the courts in India the order has been in favour of the establishment of the day—the party cannot present itself as a sore loser. It has to accept this reality and move on.
Congress’s Current Stand on Ram Mandir
However, as a political party, it does not have the luxury of keeping quiet. Should it choose to say nothing, it will be seen as the conspicuous silence of a defeated party. It is in this context that the statement of MP Congress Chief Kamal Nath is both politically clever and balanced. He welcomed the construction of the temple and described it fulfilment of a longstanding public desire. In effect, his statement underlines an understanding of realpolitik and the necessity of social reconciliation.
Taking the cue from Kamal Nath’s statement, the party through its internal discussions must develop a well-considered position on the construction of the Ram Temple and eventually on a mosque on the site allotted to the Muslims.
If the Muslim community has reconciled to the Supreme Court verdict, even if reluctantly, then it makes little sense for the Congress to take a provocative position.
In keeping with this understanding perhaps, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi has welcomed the temple construction.
She has said that Ram belongs to everyone and hoped that the beginning of the temple would become an occasion for “national unity, fraternity and cultural congregation”. However, she and her party need to go beyond such fond hopes. “Unity, fraternity and cultural congregation” mean something entirely different to those opposed to the secular polity of India.
Rahul Gandhi’s iteration on the subject is a tad more nuanced but plays the same hope game.
What Will Congress Say to the Muslim Community?
That is why the Congress needs to make it amply clear—first to itself and then to its potential supporters—that social reconciliation does not mean political reconciliation with the forces responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque. The reconciliatory statements on the Ram Temple must not blunt the party’s representation of Muslims as a community or its commitment to India’s secular Constitution.
The party will have to face up to the issues confronting not only the Muslim community but also to the Indian Constitution.
These challenges relate to the changes brought about by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the BJP agenda to implement a National Population Register and a National Register of Citizens. The party has to take a pro-active position on them. It must show its political commitment by opposing the incarceration of anti-CAA activists, especially from the minority community and provide them legal help. These issues are far more fundamental than the temple at Ayodhya and therefore need far greater attention and deliberation.
The Congress has lost the support of the minorities not because they are upset with it but because the party has ceased to be an alternative to the BJP.
The Muslims shifted their allegiance to the parties that could defend their interests effectively and locally. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP or the Rashtriya Janata Dal and even the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar proved to be better alternatives to the Congress for them. In the undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress party itself withered away over the statehood issue, leaving Muslim voters no option but to look elsewhere. However, wherever the Congress is in the race, savvy Muslim voters have favoured it.
Congress Will Remain BJP’s Poor Cousin in Majority Appeasement
The BJP can survive on an exclusively Hindu core because Hindus form 80 per cent of India. On the other hand, the Muslim universe is small—about 14 per cent of the total. Whatever the Congress does to appease the majority community it will always be the BJP’s poor cousin.
Even the Muslim community knows a national party cannot have them as its core constituency.
They know it is impractical for the Congress to go that route. Therefore, for the Congress to make itself powerful enough to take on the BJP, larger caste and community alliances will be needed with the minorities being equal shareholders in the larger secular whole. The compromises and coalitions necessary for such a coalition of forces can be sold to the public only when the party has strong grassroots connections. Its eyes and ears have to be sensitive to people’s concerns, including that of the minorities. The Congress must be pragmatic without losing sight of its secular and inclusive credentials.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)