As next year’s pivotal general elections against the ruling BJP loom large on the horizon, a question that seems to preoccupy the Congressmen these days is:Is their party perceived as Hindu enough to rule India? From all the evidences on display, it is impossible to miss the religious makeover of the Congress.
Though the A.K Antony report on the Congress’s worst ever poll debacle came out in 2014, the image makeover began around Rahul Gandhi’s famous ‘temple run’ ahead of Gujarat state elections last December. He ended up visiting at least a dozen Hindu temples or shrines over a six-week period.
As if to explain Rahul’s love for everything Hindu, a party spokesperson announced the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s descent from a family of “Shiv Bhakts” and that he is not merely any old garden-variety Hindu, but belonged to the twice-born or “janeu-dhari” caste. As if this was not enough, puja kits were distributed by Congress party workers in Saurashtra in Gujarat.
Though seeking darshan at a temple or offering prayers at a mosque or church is a matter a faith for the adherents,embarking on a vote yatra is a very good thing for the political animal. Hoping to win an election, he has to not only go through the motions of connecting to would-be voters, but also needs to demonstrate empathy with what is close to their hearts. Religious places are suffused with deep invocation and prayer, whose paths are lined with the faith, dreams, hopes and aspirations of the people, especially of the desperate. And the Grand Old Party of India is really desperate these days.
To get a sense of how far Congress and Rahul Gandhi, in particular, have travelled on this road, recall his answer when questioned about his faith back in 2006. “My religion is the national flag,” he had thundered at the time. While a decade ago, he sought to blur his religious identity; today he seeks to flaunt his new-found Hindu status, all for a few votes.
Ahead of the Gujarat Assembly elections in December, Gandhi had visited several temples in the state, including the Somnath Temple. Carrying forward the same strategy, a spate of high profile temple visits appear central to Congress’s Karnataka campaign as well.
Recently, Gandhi grandiosely declared that Congress “followed the ideals of Basavanna,” the 12th century Hindu philosopher and social reformer revered by the state’s politically powerful Lingayat community.
The Gandhi scion is not alone in having undertaken this rebranding effort as many other Congressmen and their ilk are leaving no stones unturned in order to reinvent themselves or at least, their images. Shashi Tharoor is busy penning and promoting a new book, “Why I Am a Hindu”, an ode to the religion he claims to practise ardently. As if that were not enough to burnish Congress’s religious credentials, party spokespersons sign off tweets with “Vande Mataram.” But these efforts are bound to fall flat as Indian voters are smart enough to see through any kind of charade, which these efforts seem to be.
But Congress, facing its deepest crisis in more than seven decades, and now engaged in a do or die battle in Karnataka, cannot be blamed for seeking to refurbish itself as it is up against India’s most charismatic politician in a generation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, by wearing his piety on his sleeve, has altered the language of contemporary politics. And now, as the Congress has realised, albeit too late, that in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority country, it doesn’t pay to be seenas the party of minorities.
Many in the Congress are hopeful about the new strategy as they believe that by claiming to be more “Hindu” than the BJP will allow the party to focus on, as per their belief, Modi’s failure to deliver on the economy as promised. But there’s one problem with this view: Congress runs the risk of having misdiagnosed the problem. An overwhelmingly vast majority of the Hindu community feel that Congress has treated them shabbily and considers members of religious minorities better than them, and that its leadership has been largely oblivious to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.
Though both these notions are contestable, they set up a problem for Congress which cannot be wished away simply by Gandhi visiting a few more temples, him flashing his rudraksha mala or his spokespersons flaunting his photographs with him wearing the sacred janeu thread. To duck the charges of pandering, Congress needs to shed its usual ambivalence about Uniform Civil Code. It cannot afford to let senior leaders like Salman Khurshid argue for the sanctity of sharia law in 21st century India as he recently did.
Besides, its stalwarts like Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid representing the litigants in Ayodhya case, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi and P.Chidambaram representing scam tainted politicians also sends a wrong message to the ones who matter. On the question of terrorism, the party will need to tighten messaging in a way that will not be easy. With a large chunk of media firmly behind the ruling dispensation, Congress cannot afford to appear more sympathetic to alleged terrorists than to law enforcement officers. This is exactly what happened when, in 2012, Khurshid claimed that Sonia Gandhi broke up in sympathy for the terrorists who murdered M.C.Sharma, a decorated policeman at Batla House in Delhi in 2008.
Even if Congress manages to pull off this difficult recalibration, it may not be enough because with the shifting of national debate to its area of natural strength, the BJP is naturally bound to benefit. Even the fiercest critics of BJP admit that the ranks of the party are filled with pious Hindus. And if now, piety is a political virtue, then why would voters pick the party that has only rediscovered it recently?