The notion of secular politics

The liberal angst over the subtle shift in the Congress secular narrative falls into two categories: those who condemn the party for what they perceive as a let-down of the minorities and those who accept that the old idea of secularism will no longer wash with the electorate.

Practically from the moment it was sworn in, NDA II witnessed a strong backlash from the so-called ‘liberal’ left, mainly as a response to cow vigilantism. The Congress eagerly adopted the ‘intolerance’ spiel and as a result, it became a common platform of opposition to the BJP.

By degrees, the Congress added unemployment, agrarian distress and other economic indicators (and most recently, Rafale) to its arsenal. This was fitting and appropriate, as the NDA had come to power on an agenda of development and good governance.

At the same time, there was a generational transition of power from Sonia to Rahul Gandhi and it appeared to jolt the grand old party from its habitual somnolence. While in opposition, the Congress tends to sit back and wait for the ruling party to make mistakes, on the assumption that anti-incumbency will eventually kick in and bring it back to power. There’s very little introspection, beyond a cursory report on the causes of defeat, which is thereafter consigned to the dust-heap.

This time, it took an unusually pro-active approach. At long last, the Congress revisted the Nehruvian idea of secularism. Was it possible that the modern – read western – notion of secularism was passe and basing ones whole politics on keeping religion out of the public sphere had been a miscalculation?

Shedding the ‘Congress is a party of Muslims’ image became a priority. If Rahul Gandhi was to be accepted as a man of the people, following his great-grandfather in declaring himself a non-believer was inadvisable. Nor could he follow his grandmother, who was very much a believer and relied heavily on spiritual leaders through most of her life, but did not make it a point to parade her religiosity in public.

The Congress found it expedient to locate him within Hindu society – caste, gotra and all (Kashmiri brahmin, Dattatreya) – and make a public declaration of his Shaivite leanings. From Gujarat to Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples, mutts and peeths attracted eyeballs and became a hot topic of discussion, as they were meant to do.

Rahul Gandhi’s in-your-face flaunting of his Hindu credentials was calculated, with the same cynicism that the BJP manipulates public sentiment on the Ram Janambhoomi issue. The provenance of this idea is unknown. Perhaps one of his advisors had belatedly discovered political scientist Ashish Nandy’s famous ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto’.

Nandy has argued that the imported idea of secularism equates religion with ideology rather than faith, with the result that ‘secular’ politics has lost relevance. Ashoka and Akbar and even Mahatma Gandhi derived their tolerance from religion, rather than the notion of secular politics. The fear that the ideologies of secularism, development and nationalism might become faiths intolerant of other faiths, resonates louder than ever today.

Wherever the idea originated, the Congress pragmatically decided that Rahul Gandhi, who may or may not be a believer in private, must be publicly projected as one. The calculation that the minorities could be taken for granted stems partly from the precipitous decline of the Left. The fact is that the minority vote in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has already migrated to regional parties. In other states, where the BJP and Congress are the only relevant forces, it has no option but to stay with the Congress.

For the Congress, therefore, puncturing the BJP’s Hindu consolidation balloon was an imperative. For too long, secularism had been equated with a free pass for corruption and bad governance. Laloo Prasad Yadav was a case in point. All his shenanigans were tolerated, purely because he could deliver minority votes.

How successful the Congress shift in strategy will prove remains to be seen. The slight recovery in Gujarat and the slight decline in Karnataka cannot be regarded as adequate indicators. It is entirely possible that voters will see its new-found religiosity as opportunistic. The BJP has so far owned the Hindu rashtra, desi culture and Ram Janambhoomi space. Perhaps no amount of cow worship, brahmin credentials and pro-Temple theatrics will change that.

Push could well come to shove if the BJP chooses to take up the private member’s bill on the Ram Temple. The Congress would be forced to take a stand, most likely in favour of awaiting the Supreme Court’s verdict on the issue and this is exactly what the BJP wants.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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