By Rajdeep Sardesai
The centrist secular space that rejects religion as a marker of political identity is being hollowed out
At a media conclave in 2018, Sonia Gandhi made a candid confession. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she claimed, had managed to convince many people that the Congress is a “Muslim party”. Her remarks, in a sense, were an admission that Nehruvian secularism had failed to combat the rising tide of political Hindutva. Gandhi’s words also echoed the party’s AK Antony committee report, drafted in the aftermath of the 2014 poll debacle but never made public, that the Congress was seen as “pro-Muslim” and “anti-Hindu”. Three years later, the party’s predicament is even starker, with its secular identity once again being questioned for aligning with Muslim parties.
In Kerala, the Congress’s long-standing alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) is under the scanner with both the ruling Left Front and the BJP targeting the party for being partial to the League’s interests. In Assam, the Congress has tied up with businessman-politician Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party representing the concerns of the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrant population. And in West Bengal, the Congress is part of a Left-led alliance that includes the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a party started by Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric, whose public utterances are contentious. In each instance, the BJP has unsurprisingly been flagging these alliances to consolidate its Hindu votebank.
The nature of these alliances and the reaction to them reflect the deepening crisis within the Congress and, indeed, within mainstream secular politics. For the Congress, this is a crisis that has been building up for decades, ever since Indira Gandhi inserted “secularism” in the Preamble in 1976. Her move was driven by realpolitik, designed to consolidate her hold among the minorities while cornering her political rivals. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom secularism was an article of faith, Indira Gandhi was guilty of practicing lip-service secularism, especially after returning to power in 1980. Then be it in Punjab, Assam or Jammu and Kashmir, she appeared to shun the pretence of secularism in the race for votes by aligning with religious forces of all hues.
Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister (PM), put further strain on secular values by appeasing both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. The politics of running with the secular hare and hunting with the communal hound through the turbulent 1980s would culminate in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and propel the BJP into a position of power.
Since then, while the saffron brotherhood has gone from strength-to-strength, the Congress has struggled to find a consistent ideological and organisational response to the challenge posed by strident Hindutva nationalism. The party has oscillated between a Manmohan Singh as PM affirming that minorities, particularly Muslims, have the “first claim” on government resources to a Rahul Gandhi going temple-hopping ahead of a Gujarat election and the party asserting that he is a “janeudhari” Hindu. As a result, the centrist secular space that rejects religion as a marker of political identity has over time been hollowed out.
The Congress now finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Appealing to any kind of Hindu sentiment only leaves it looking like a “B team” of the BJP, an unconvincing copy of the original party of majoritarianism. The shortlived Kamal Nath-led government in Madhya Pradesh attempted this with its version of cow politics but with little resonance on the ground. On the other hand, forging alliances with smaller, Muslim-centric parties also appears like a temporary fix for uncertain electoral gains. For example, in Assam’s surcharged post-Citizenship (Amendment) Act politics, the Congress-AIUDF alliance may sweep the Muslim-dominated seats of lower Assam but will inevitably spark off a counter-polarisation in the rest of the state.
In a sharply divided Bengal, a tie-up with the ISF is not only ideologically incompatible but will only further split the Muslim vote between Mamata Banerjee and the Left-Congress-ISF alliance, thereby improving the BJP’s chances. Ironically, the Left, which attacks the Congress in Kerala for its IUML partnership, has had few compunctions in pushing for an alliance with an Islamist party in Bengal — it is these underlying hypocrisies in the secular project that have weakened it morally and politically. Sadly, the worst sufferers in the credibility crisis facing mainstream secularism have been the minorities. Isolated and demonised by the Hindutva brigade, their patriotism routinely called into question, the Rightward lurch in Indian politics has only made Muslims feel fearful and resentful. Their anxieties and grievances with secular politics have seen many younger Muslims turn to the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi as potential protectors and defenders of the faith.
In the recent Gujarat local body polls, for example, Owaisi’s party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won seven of the eight seats it contested in Godhra and emerged as the main Opposition party in Modasa town. Most of these seats were previously won by the Congress. Clearly, even Muslim voters are looking for alternatives that go beyond clichéd and bogus definitions of secularism. Post-script: The BJP has attacked the Congress’s secular vision for aligning with an Islamic cleric in Bengal. However, the party happily advertises the fact that India’s most-populous state is run by a saffron-robed Hindu head priest affiliated to a religious monastery. Or are the rules in votebank politics different for different people?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal