(In the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, three states will see bipolar contests between the Congress and BJP – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The recent political moves in MP by Congress leaders Kamal Nath and Priyanka Gandhi appear to be aimed at 'appeasing' the Hindu vote, triggering a debate around the utility and practicality of 'soft Hindutva' as a campaign strategy. This article argues that such tactics are necessary for Congress' survival in order to tackle the BJP head-on in the upcoming elections. Read the counterview here.)
The Congress' attempts to play the 'Hindu card' to counter the BJP - the latest example being Priyanka Gandhi and Kamal Nath taking part in a Narmada Aarti in Jabalpur - shouldn't come as a surprise.
This is nothing but a result of what the BJP managed to achieve in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The impact of the BJP's win was evident from the moment the 17th Lok Sabha was sworn-in. One of the most vivid images of the swearing-in ceremony was of Trinamool Congress MP Kakoli Ghosh-Dastidar shouting 'Joy Kali Maa' in response to BJP MPs heckling her with 'Jai Shri Ram' slogans.
Ghosh-Dastidar may have given a spirited fightback at that moment, but it was the sign of a bigger political victory for the BJP - it had forced the Opposition to play on the pitch of Hindu assertion.
In the years that followed, there were many more such examples from the Opposition camp - from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reciting Hanuman Chalisa, to Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath donating silver bricks for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Bhupesh Baghel participating in a number of Hindu rituals, not to mention Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's publicised temple visits.
So, are the Opposition leaders playing into the BJP's hands or can this strategy prove useful against the BJP? This piece will put forward a third possibility - that this is a necessary survival tactic in the battle against BJP, due to prevailing political realities.
There are four aspects to this.
1. BJP's Dominance of the Hindu Vote
When the now-deceased BJP veteran Pramod Mahajan was stitching an alliance with the Shiv Sena in the 1980s, he is said to have told Balasaheb Thackeray that he looks forward to a day when every Hindu votes as a Hindu.
Though there is no data to suggest that Hindus voted for the BJP purely due to such a sentiment, it is true that the party did benefit from an unprecedented consolidation of Hindu votes.
According to Lokniti-CSDS' post-poll survey for the 2019 elections, the BJP and its allies managed to secure close to 52 percent of the Hindu votes all over India. This would definitely be the highest consolidation of Hindu votes nationally in three decades.
If we go state-wise, the NDA managed to get over 60 percent of the Hindu votes in several states. According to the CSDS survey, it got 70 percent Hindu votes in Assam, 67 percent in Gujarat, 66 percent in Delhi, 65 percent in Bihar, 64 percent in Jharkhand, 63 percent in Rajasthan and 62 percent in Maharashtra.
Given this dominance, it is not surprising that parties that are challenging the BJP in these states are feeling compelled to assert their Hindu credentials.
2. Difference Between Majority and Minority Viewpoints
It's not just a question of consolidating Hindu votes during the national elections. There are two other aspects to the BJP's dominance - support for PM Modi and ideological inclination.
In both these aspects, there is a clear difference between the viewpoint of Hindus on one hand and Muslims, Sikhs and Christians on the other.
According to the 2019 CSDS survey, 54 percent Hindu voters wanted PM Modi back for a second term and 29 percent did not, the rest being undecided. However, 64 percent Muslims and 55 percent of Christians and Sikhs did not want Modi back as PM. The percentage of those who wanted Modi back was 15 percent among Muslims, 17 percent among Christians and 29 percent among Sikhs.
Clearly, the majority community and the three biggest minorities had a massive divergence on this.
But this divergence reflects in other aspects as well.
Here are some insights from CSDS' survey on 'Politics and Society Between Elections' 2019.
According to the survey, 37 percent Hindus viewed Muslims as unpatriotic while 35 percent view them as patriotic, the others being undecided.
On the other hand, 46 percent Sikhs and 44 percent Christians viewed Muslims as patriotic, as opposed to 29 and 22 percent in the two communities having the opposing viewpoint.
This showed that Hindus having a negative view of Muslims marginally outnumber those having a positive view. Among Sikhs and Christians, those having a positive view are substantially more than those having a negative view.
Let's take another data point from the survey. It showed that Hindus across caste groups, except Adivasis, tended to favour punishing people for refusing to say Bharat Mata ki Jai. On the other hand, more Muslims, Christians and Sikhs tended to oppose than support such punishments.
These data points indicate that a certain kind of majoritarian nationalism has taken root among a section of Hindus.
Now, it is important to state this doesn't reflect the viewpoint of a majority of Hindus. If we take the 37 percent who view Muslims as 'unpatriotic' as per the CSDS survey, it is a substantial number but still doesn't account for a majority of Hindus.
The problem is that this section is way more vocal and its viewpoint gets amplified much more in the media and social media.
Due to being vocal, this section is able to dictate who is seen as 'pro-Hindu' and who is seen as 'anti-Hindu' and this is causing the dilemma for 'secular' parties.
3. 'Hindu Card' is a defensive strategy to avoid being labelled anti-Hindu
It is often argued that 'if voters can vote for the real Hindutva party, that is the BJP, why would they pick the soft option like the Congress, AAP or TMC?'
A point that is often missed is that these parties' pro-Hindu strategy isn't aimed at winning votes, but to avoid losing them.
From the AK Antony report after the 2019 results to the Udaipur Chintan Shivir and Raipur Plenary, 'how to remove the anti-Hindu tag' has been a important issue of discussion within the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi visiting temples, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra participating in religious ceremonies or Arvind Kejriwal reciting Hanuman Chalisa are essentially defensive strategies. They are nothing but ways to dodge the BJP's efforts to label them as 'anti-Hindu'.
By showcasing their religiosity repeatedly in full public view, these leaders want to cancel out the 'anti-Hindu' barbs of the BJP and create enough doubt in people's minds that it doesn't become an election issue.
This doesn't amount to seeking votes in the name of Hindu assertion.
4. Hindu Symbolism isn't Hindutva
Going to temples and participating in rituals doesn't amount to Hindutva. It is simply practising Hinduism. Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee etc are all practising Hindus, at least if one goes by their public pronouncements.
So it is absolutely fine if they go to temples and participate in Hindu rituals.
It is also understandable if they want to now publicise their religiosity which they had kept private for all these years. That still doesn't qualify as Hindutva. The trap that these 'secular' leaders need to avoid is throwing minorities under the bus for fear of offending the majority.
Arvind Kejriwal was criticised for his silence during the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots. The Congress government in Rajasthan was criticised for unequal compensation it gave in hate crimes. While the family of Kanhaiya Lal who was killed in Udaipur was given Rs 50 lakh, the families of Junaid and Nasir who were killed in Mewat were given Rs 5 lakh each.
A line also gets crossed when Congress leaders are seen hobnobbing with people known to give hate speeches - such as Kamal Nath's meeting with Dhirendra Shastri of Bageshwar Dham.
So far, the Congress government in Karnataka presents a good balance. During the campaign, the Congress' top two leaders Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar visited several temples and Mutts, despite Siddaramaiah's earlier image as an agnostic.
However, Hindu symbolism didn't impact the campaign promises as they said they would ban the Bajrang Dal and remove the Hijab ban.
The results of the 2020 Delhi elections, 2021 West Bengal elections, 2022 Himachal Pradesh elections and the recent Karnataka elections show that the Opposition's strategy may be working well at least at the state level.
The emphasis on Hindu symbolism is blunting to some extent the BJP's allegation of the Opposition being anti-Hindu and helping Opposition parties turn the focus on their aggressive welfarism and pro-poor policies. It remains to be seen if it can succeed at the national level.