The main roadblock to the Indian National Congress is not dynasty, or the recent dissidence within its ranks, but secularism. 73 years after Independence, we realise that individuals can be secular, but a country cannot, unless it is homogenous.
After the Partition of 1947, unlike Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s offering of secularism as dessert to Pakistan, India had to make a meal of disparate ingredients. Multiculturalism was projected as secularism, even as three other ‘isms’ continued to mock it – communalism, parochialism, regionalism.
For all these decades, the Congress has been stuck with ‘marketing’ what it ‘inherited’. It has managed to ‘get away’ with riots on its watch simply because on paper, secularism was its default setting.
To be fair, it does lean towards a broader view of a pluralistic coexistence. However, on the question of separation of state and religion, and treating all religions equally, the INC does not appear to have a proactive position on minority rights, except for homilies, and what is rather derogatorily referred to by many as ‘appeasement’.
With the continuing rise of the BJP, the Congress is trying to balance its act by ‘appeasing’ the majority community.
By catering to 80 percent of the population who hold the largest stake in the political narrative, it betrays the minorities, especially Muslims, who are seen as the main target under the incumbent regime.
Challenging Muslim Leadership
“Name five leaders who have pan-India presence today,” Rahul Gandhi asked a gathering of Muslim Youth Congress leaders in 2012. “After Maulana Azad, we have not had a leader with a national stature.”
‘Stature’ is a vague term, and that too from the limited perspective of community/religion/region/minority-ism.
Why is the question of crisis in leadership reserved only for minority groups?
When some in the audience named Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid, Rahul Gandhi dismissed their suggestions, saying that Muslims in South India would not identify with them.
But this is true of regional leaders as well, who may not stand a chance in national politics, and in fact, openly push for a specific ethnic agenda. Indians in different parts of the country view Rahul Gandhi in discrete ways too – as a ‘Kashmiri Brahmin’, as ‘half-foreign’, as ‘heir apparent’, as ‘political legacy’, as a ‘novice’ –– as ‘hope’ itself.
Ironically, Muslims seeking a leader from within the community are viewed with suspicion, when India has voted for a party that not only flaunts its Hindu identity and seeks a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, but also tries to silence those who contest such an idea.
A Muslim party or a Muslim leader is not so much about faith as it is about the community. An opportunity does not translate into blind acceptance of its policies.
Beyond Politics of Appeasement
For somebody who has been opposed to the idea of narrow divisions in national politics, I have come to recognise that minorities do not need merely a voice and a face, but several voices, several faces –– if for nothing else than to project the non-majoritarian perception of them. To put it out there that minorities are more than a group of appeased and tolerated people.
In a recent interview, Islamic preacher Zakir Naik spoke of a few possibilities:
- “Muslims should make another party, exclusively, only for Muslims”
- “This political party should join hands with other political parties that are not fascist and not communal”
- “If you have the means to go to a Muslim-majority country, that should be the best…or (another state within India) which is more lenient towards Muslims”
I am quoting him only because community members have been thinking along similar lines each time there is a video of a lynching, or they cannot rent a house, or they are taunted and called ‘traitors’. On the points raised, I’d say there should not be a reliance on any one Muslim party or it will go the ‘secular party way’, and joining hands with one would mean getting co-opted and touted as the ‘acceptable Muslim’.
The President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, was a Congress supporter when it ruled in Andhra Pradesh, but fell out with the party when his brother Akbaruddin was arrested and served a sentence for hate speech. Besides such filial considerations, his constant refrain of ‘protecting secularism’ is just flogging a dead horse kept on ice by mainstream parties.
On the flip side, his nationalistic assertions do categorically convey that Indian Muslims have no desire to leave the country.
Apart from such a ‘Hijrah’ (departure) being an impractical idea and also elitist, it would only add heft to the imagined notion of Muslims as separatists.
Muslims who really bear the brunt of ideological positions and utterances are daily wage earners, cattle herders, vendors. If they are killed, they get a mere social media hashtag –– and are soon forgotten.
What Congress Should Do If It’s Serious About Winning Back Muslim Support
When the Ram Mandir was inaugurated on 5 August 2020, Priyanka Gandhi endorsed it, saying that it would bring about national unity. Her position is not as simplistic as joining the Hindutva bandwagon, but of legitimising a view of India through a majoritarian religious prism.
She even stated that the proposed temple ‘was with Shri Ram’s blessings’. This was tantamount to insulting a community that suffered during the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and altered the way India functioned as a democracy.
The fact that liberals expect Muslims to turn a blind eye to such pandering is revealing of the selectivity of the secular principle in practice.
Such blinkered magnanimity is never granted to region and community-specific parties.
The ‘pan-India presence’ bogey is an enforced idea to maintain the status quo and keep out authentic representation. If the Congress is serious about winning over Muslims, it should let them win.
(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)