FPJ Edit:  Desperate to regain relevance, Congress has shed all pretence of secularism

The Congress Party’s desperation to regain relevance has called into question its faith in secularism. You cannot sup with the devil and lay claim to moral superiority. The Congress-Left Front alliance, by roping in the Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front, has played straight into the hands of the BJP, which is making a strong bid to oust Mamata Banerjee from power in this election. Besides, it has caused consternation within the Congress Party itself, with senior leader Anand Sharma publicly questioning the truck with the Furfura Sharif cleric.

Sharma, part of the Group of 23, tweeted a few days ago that the communal alliance would only help the BJP. The West Bengal Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury reacted angrily, countering that Sharma was helping the BJP by questioning the alliance with the cleric. Besides, it was the Left Front which had allocated seats from its quota to the ASF, not the Congress. But the Congress Party cannot disown the alliance with Siddiqui’s party whether or not it gives seats from its own quota.

Secularism cannot be divided. Like virginity, there is no such thing as partially secular. Either you or secular or you are not. There can be no mid-way. Also, you cannot be secular in Delhi and communal in Bengal. Your credentials are compromised anyway, once you agree to sup with a self-avowed communal outfit. Meanwhile, there is unlikely to be smooth sailing for the front given the public display of recriminations between Siddiqui and Chowdhury at its recent public meeting at the Brigade Ground in Kolkata. The ISF chief left none in doubt by taking potshots at the Congress leader.

At the heart of the dispute is the Congress’s reluctance to part with seats from the Muslim-dominated constituencies, which hitherto had been the party’s bastion. Whether the pull of a Muslim-centric party would damage the Congress’s prospects in Malda and Murshidabad districts remains to be seen, but the young ISF cleric seems keen to spread his wings there in the coming poll.

Meanwhile, the perennial debate over secularism versus communalism has become meaningless, with so-called secular parties allying with the religion-based outfits with an eye on boosting their electoral prospects. Ever since the Congress lost its sway over the voters in large swathes of the country, it has shed all pretence to be secular, teaming up with palpably communal parties. It needed to ally with the Indian Union Muslim League in order to challenge the Left Front in Kerala. It is irrelevant whether the IUML practises hard or soft communalism, so long as it draws its main support from Muslims it cannot shake off the label of communalism.

Again, it speaks of the diminished appeal of the Congress that it has for the first time allied with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF. It is hard for anyone to deny that Ajmal’s party relies on the support of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and other Muslims. Similarly, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM too banks on the support of Muslims. In recent years, he has sought to tap the Muslim vote outside the AIMIM’s original base in the old Hyderabad areas. His relative success in the recent Bihar assembly poll has encouraged him to field his candidates both in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Indeed, he was keen to ally with the Furfura Sharif cleric, till the latter saw a percentage in allying with the Left Front-Congress. Why, the Congress’s alliance with the Shiv Sena, in order to grab power in Maharashtra, does not refurbish its secular credentials. If anything, the alliance denudes the party of any claim to secularism.

With the so-called secular parties no longer hesitant to partner religion-centric regional parties, it is advantage BJP. The oft-repeated charge against it that it is communal in fact helps it advance its agenda, allowing it to flesh out its claim that the Congress-Left-Trinamool Congress, etc. practise the politics of Muslim appeasement. Such polarisation on religious lines is invariably to the advantage of the BJP. Of course, it is pointless to bemoan the communalisation of the hitherto secular parties. In the post-ideology age, all parties do what they believe can help them win elections.

Holding principles and ideology dear was a luxury when the Congress had charismatic leaders capable of winning elections without resorting to identity politics. Just when the Congress brand has lost much of its appeal, it perforce does what it can to help it survive the ascendance of BJP. Cynicism over policies, programmes, ideologies and identity in politics has become inevitable for survival of the Congress-Left and a slew of other parties.

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