Last week, in a bid to target the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its many Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) affiliates, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi erred grievously. At a well-attended rally in Jaipur on 12 December, he said, “This is a country of Hindus, not Hindutvawadis … Hindutvawadis have to be ousted, and the rule of Hindus brought about in the country."
In making a distinction between “Hindus” and “Hindutvawadis”, the Congress leader made a valid point, and, expectedly, was at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from BJP leaders. Blurring the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, the latter simply accused Gandhi of attacking Hindus.
But Rahul seriously blundered in describing India as “a land of Hindus” and stressing that “the rule of Hindus” needed to be restored in the country. In the process, the Congress annoyed a vast swathe of those who might have been expected to back his definition of Hindutva, a political construct promoting Hindu majoritarianism, and distinct from Hinduism, a liberal religion.
'Soft Saffron Politics'
From Kerala’s Left Front Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and AlMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)’s Majid Memon, they were all out there, accusing Gandhi of practising “soft saffron politics” and pointing out that India was much more than just “a land of Hindus”.
"Rahul Gandhi’s statement is part of the soft Hindutva stand adopted by the Congress long ago. He has only re-emphasised that policy in Jaipur," Vijayan said, inaugurating the CPM’s Ernakulam district conference on 14 December. He added that the Congress’s “soft-Hindutva’’ alternative against the BJP – “establishing the rule of Hindus after ousting the Hindutva government” – instead of strengthening the idea of secularism, would further weaken the party’s stand. He went so far as to say that the “people had lost faith” in the Congress and it no longer had the potential to provide a national alternative to the BJP.
In a tweet, Owaisi responded to Gandhi by saying, “Rahul & INC fertilised the ground for Hindutva. Now they're trying to harvest majoritarianism. Bringing 'Hindus to power' is a 'secular' agenda in 2021. Wah! India belongs to all Bharatiyas. Not Hindus alone. India belongs to people of all faiths & also those who have no faith.”
And Memon said, "... In his overzealousness, he [Gandhi] said that I don't want Hindutva Raj, I want Hindu Raj. He forgot that being the follower of Jawaharlal, Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and all those tall leaders who believed in secularism and India's characteristic as a secular state … there cannot be the Raj of a religion.”
Possibly, Gandhi, no master of communication, made a slip and did not mean to say what he did. But in politics, top leaders have to be wary of what they say.
Because once those words are out there in the public domain, they are there for everyone – from fellow travellers to rival politicians to social media dilettantes – to amplify them in whatever way they wish to.
B-Team Politics Won't Help Cong for Long
In the past, too, in a bid to compete with the BJP, the Congress has played what can only be described as ‘soft saffron politics’. Since the 2014 election, surging Hindu nationalism has put the Congress – and secularism, more generally – on the backfoot. The growing consensus seems to be that Hindu nationalism has gained traction at the expense of secularism, to the point of being viewed as the only legitimate stance an electorally successful nationwide political party can take. During state election campaigns in Gujarat (2017) as well as in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (2018), Gandhi took the unusual step – for him – of visiting dozens of temples. He presented himself as a Shiv bhakt (disciple of the Hindu god Shiva), displayed his janeu, his sacred thread, and let his entourage discuss his Brahmin background as well as his gotra (clan) in response to BJP leaders who repeatedly brought up the Italian heritage of his mother, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.
This ‘B-team’ politics did help the Congress oust the BJP from Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in December 2018, but it did not solve its identity problem. The results merely announced that the Congress was still in the game, though a long distance away from regaining its old position as India’s dominant political power.
Indeed, the aggressive marketing of Gandhi as a religious Hindu sits awkwardly with the ideals of the freedom struggle and the “idea of India”, indeed, even with the pluralism promoted by the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh duo.
Gandhi and the Congress have not yet been able to formulate a fitting response to the divisiveness of Hindutva politics in a way that would be easily understood by the ordinary man.
Today, only the minorities – who have felt the brunt of Hindu majoritarianism – and ideologically educated Hindus who can step outside the comfort zone of belonging to the majority community and read the BJP’s dogwhistle politics for what it is, understand the game the ruling party is playing. They, alone, can see and deplore the slow erosion of constitutional values, of the justice system, and, indeed, of democracy itself.
Need For New Definitions
Gandhi and the Congress need to understand that in 2021, Hindu majoritarianism has taken deep roots in Hindu society. On the ground, journalists, activists and party workers have found that most people do not understand the difference between Hinduism, the religion, and Hindutva, the Savarkar-inspired political doctrine whose aim is to build a Hindu state, the mirror image of Pakistan, a theocratic state, a concept that our Constitution-framers had rejected.
It is time, therefore, to change the narrative and create a new religion-neutral vocabulary. It must be a vocabulary that eschews the use of the word Hindutva and focuses instead on the principles of the Constitution, the sanctity of “equality before the law”, and the importance of “justice” in building a stable society. It must stress the dangers of politics that portrays those who practise other religions as “enemies”, and emphasise the importance of “pluralism” and “inclusiveness” in creating a strong, stable and internally cohesive nation.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)