Congress Needs to Reclaim the Hindu Mind, But Not BJP-Style

The party must develop its own ideology on secularism and inclusive Hinduism, instead of just reacting to the BJP.

8 min read
Hindi Female

The Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body, at its meeting on 16 January 1999, unanimously passed a resolution that made a bold but now largely forgotten affirmation. It said that “Hinduism is the most effective guarantor of secularism in India”. This landmark resolution was passed within a year of Sonia Gandhi becoming the Congress president on 14 March 1998.

Ironically, after a passage of two decades, when both its vote share and seat share in Parliament have plummeted to an all-time low, the Congress is fighting hard to prove that it is not anti-Hindu. These two decades have effected such a radical change in the political and ideological climate in India that even the defence of secularism has become electorally risky for the Congress. How many Congress leaders have, in recent years, stoutly championed the cause of secularism? Very few.


How Did Secularism Become a 'Threat' to Hindu Society?

How did this change happen? Why did a fairly large section of Hindus begin to see — rather, how did they get influenced by the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda into seeing — the Congress as an “anti-Hindu” and “pro-Muslim” party? Why did many Hindus — not all but certainly a vocal section of them — begin to view secularism as a concept detrimental to the interests of the Hindu society and the Indian nation?

Unless these questions are seriously and honestly examined by leaders of the Congress party, and also by intellectuals who are its well-wishers (I count myself among them), the Congress will not succeed in reviving itself. It may not even succeed in ousting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024, which has created a solid Hindu vote bank and is backed by the ideologically motivated army of the Sangh Parivar.


How Did Cong Lose the Hindu Vote?

Several factors have contributed to the steep decline of the Congress, such as the prolonged leadership crisis and organisational disarray. However, Congress leaders would be deceiving themselves if they ignored the most important factor — namely, that a section of the Hindu society has deserted India’s oldest political party, which played a leading role in the freedom movement. This section is still a minority within the Hindu population, but it is large enough to severely damage the Congress electorally. It mostly comprises the educated middle class. But many Hindus belonging to the lower classes have also moved away from the Congress.

This is not surprising, since their aspiration is to move socially upward and acquire the middle-class status. Furthermore, this migration has been caste-agnostic. Not only ‘upper’ caste Hindus, but also a significant number of OBCs, SCs, and even STs, have begun to view the Congress as anti-Hindu.

This has happened because the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar have succeeded in the ‘Hinduisation’ of a critical mass of Hindu voters, that is, Hindu voters who vote with a Hindu political consciousness. This was not the case in the past. India has always been a Hindu-majority nation, but the number of Hindus who voted with a Hindu political consciousness was small until the late 1980s. This is why the two avowedly pro-Hindu parties — the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which existed from 1951 to 1977, and was reborn as the BJP in 1980), remained at the margins of India’s political and governance system. The Congress reigned supreme at the national level, and also in many states, because a majority of Hindus supported it. But these Hindus did not bring a Hindu political identity to the ballot box.


Late VN Gadgil’s Warning to the Congress

VN Gadgil, the cerebral spokesman of the Congress in the yesteryears, had a major influence on the CWC’s resolution in 1999. As quoted in Rasheed Kidwai’s book 24 Akbar Road, he once said, “Muslims constitute only 18 per cent of the vote share. Even if all of them vote for the Congress, the party will not come to power. We cannot go on ignoring the sentiments of the remaining 82 per cent.”

For saying this, Gadgil’s secular credentials were questioned by some in his own party, who asked if he was going to quit the Congress. To them, he replied, “I was born a Congressman and will die one. My father [N.V. Gadgil, a Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first Cabinet from 1947-52] was the first one who identified Nathuram Godse as Gandhiji’s killer and averted communal riots in which thousands of Muslims would have been killed. I don’t have to prove my secular credentials to anyone. I am only cautioning the Congress against treating only Muslims as a minority at the cost of Hindus. It has got to do with sheer electoral arithmetic.”

Today’s Congress leaders would do well to pay attention to Gadgil’s words. A major reason for the steady erosion of the party’s Hindu vote base was the high-decibel propaganda by BJP leaders that the Congress was indulging in politics of “Muslim appeasement” and treating Muslims as a “vote bank” while ignoring Hindu sentiments.

This propaganda was only partly true. But it became especially effective after the late 1980s on account of two developments that made a decisive impact on Indian politics — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s sudden and unprincipled U-turn in the Shah Bano matter in 1986 in the face of large-scale protests by Muslim hardliners, and the Congress party’s ambivalent position on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.

These two developments greatly helped the BJP expand its Hindu vote bank. The BJP’s defeats in 2004 and 2009 only served to strengthen the Sangh Parivar’s resolve to pursue the strategy of Hindu consolidation — which necessarily meant communal polarisation and politics of hate — ever more aggressively than before. Since 2014, this is what Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and the BJP’s lesser leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma (in Assam), Biplab Deb (in Tripura), and Narottam Mishra (the rising Hindutva star in Madhya Pradesh) have been doing, with ominous degrees of success.


Rahul’s Welcome But Inadequate Criticism of Hindutva

How should the Congress retrieve its Hindu support base without imitating the BJP’s divisive and anti-Muslim politics? This question provides both the context and purpose for examining an important statement Rahul Gandhi has made recently. “Hinduism and Hindutva are entirely different,” he said while addressing by videoconference his party’s training programme at Wardha in Maharashtra. “What is the difference between Hinduism — as we know it — and Hindutva? Are they the same thing? Can they be the same thing? Is Hinduism about beating a Sikh or a Muslim? Is Hinduism about killing Akhlaq? Hindutva, of course, is. Where is it written that religion is about killing an innocent man, I am unable to find this,” Rahul said.

Rahul affirmed that the Congress ideology is guided and inspired by the age-old wisdom of Indian civilisation. “You can start with Shiva, Kabir, Guru Nanak … We follow their teachings. Mahatma Gandhi is a very good example. So, we have to deeply study what they were saying. Is there something common between what Guru Nanak said or Kabir said and the Hindutva ideology? Is there something common between what Gandhi said or what King Ashoka said and the Hindutva ideology?”

The Congress party’s former (and most probably future) president also asserted, “I have read the Upanishads, I have not seen hate in it. Where is it written that you should kill an innocent man? I am unable to find this in any Hindu scripture or in Islamic scripture or Sikh scripture. I can see it in Hindutva.”

Rahul’s statement deserves to be welcomed by all those who believe in secularism, communal harmony and national unity. However, his and his party’s battle against the BJP’s bigotry falls far short of what is needed to cleanse the current poisonous ideological and political atmosphere in the country. Basically, there are five kinds of serious shortcomings in the Congress party’s efforts to regain its lost Hindu support base. The party’s communication to Hindus is inadequate, inconsistent, episodic, reactive, and lacking in introspection and self-criticism.


The Need to Look Beyond Twitter and Temple Visits

Inadequate, because Rahul has so far not gone much beyond tweets, short statements and temple visits (mostly during election campaigns) to reach out to the Hindu heart and mind.

The party, and the intellectuals associated with it, have not produced a body of literature on the tolerant and inclusive heritage of Hinduism that appeals to the diverse sections of the Hindu society and also to non-Hindus (Shashi Tharoor is an exception). And the party has made no effort whatsoever to launch a sustained nationwide campaign to demonstrate that it is pro-Hindu, without being anti-Muslim.

Such a campaign, to be effective, also has to make a more nuanced criticism of Hindutva (the political misuse of Hinduism). This is because Hindutva, like Hinduism itself, has lent itself to a wide spectrum of expositions, not all of which are militant or bigoted.

What this means is that there is scope as well as a need for a dialogue between the Congress and right-thinking people in the RSS (its chief Mohan Bhagwat is one of them) on a host of issues related to the ‘Hinduism vs. Hindutva’ debate. Rahul’s blanket and un-nuanced attack on the RSS is counter-productive. Similarly, the Sangh is also wrong in backing the BJP as the only “party that protects Hindu interests”, as if other parties such as the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, etc., (which have Hindu leaders and whose support base is largely Hindu) are ipso facto “anti-Hindu”. This division is detrimental both to the reform of the Hindu society and to the rapid progress of a united nation. In short, both the Congress and the RSS need to review their antagonistic attitude towards each other.

To be effective, the Congress party’s should also boldly highlight the messages of egalitarianism, social justice and social reform within Hinduism, which Marxists, Ambedkarites and other secularists have routinely denied in their anti-Hindu tirade. The Congress should not outsource its thinking on Hinduism and legitimate Hindu issues to people who believe that Hinduism is inherently oppressive, obscurantist, iniquitous and without any scope for self-renewal.


Cong. Needs to Snap Out of Its Reactive Mode

Inconsistent, because the Congress has neither reiterated its 1999 resolution on “Hinduism as the most effective guarantor of secularism” on a regular basis nor has it passed a similar new resolution thereafter. Indeed, that resolution has mostly vanished from the party’s own discourse on secularism. The Congress party’s advocacy of secularism is inconsistent also in another important sense. It rarely speaks out against fanaticism, bigotry and violence in the name of Islam, which is practised by a minority of Muslims in India and abroad. To think that the rise of Hindutva has nothing to do with the political misuse of Islam by Islamists is delusional.

Episodic, because Rahul and other Congress leaders have been speaking about the virtues of Hinduism only lately and in response to certain events and developments.

Reactive, because the Congress is reacting to the ‘Hindutva’ agenda set by the BJP, without being proactive in articulating its own deep convictions about the linkage between Hinduism and secularism.

Finally, the Congress approach lacks introspection, self-criticism and self-correction because its leaders have not dared to publicly admit the party’s mistakes, which have helped the BJP paint it as a party that disregards Hindu sentiments and “appeases” Muslim sentiments. Privately, many Congress leaders and supporters do talk about their party’s mistakes.

Rahul, in his recent video address to Congress workers at Wardha, has done well to admit that “the Congress ideology has been overshadowed by the RSS ideology of hate … because we have not propagated our ideology among our own people aggressively”.

One hopes that the Congress will now re-state and fully develop its ideology on secularism and secular nationalism in the light of its 1999 resolution, and begin to do all that is necessary to win back the hearts and minds of Hindus. After all, a majority of Hindus firmly reject the BJP’s government-backed politics of majoritarianism, intolerance, hate and violence against non-Hindus.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia. He has authored Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from opinion

Topics:  BJP   Congress   Muslims 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More