Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Ayodhya on Friday is being widely viewed as an attempt to change the perceived pro-minority image believed to be one of the contributing factors for the party’s near decimation in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Rahul became the first member of the Gandhi family to visit Ayodhya since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Former prime minister and Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi had visited Ayodhya in 1990.
It was the Rajiv Gandhi government that allowed the ‘shilanyas’ or a ground-breaking ceremony at an undisputed site close to the structure and also opened the doors of the Ram temple in 1986.
Rahul’s visits to temples across the country have increased ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014. In the past two years, he has visited Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, Kamakhya in Assam, Badrinath and Kedarnath in Uttarakhand, Kheer Bhawani in Kashmir, Guru Gaddi in Chhattisgarh and now Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya.
The BJP has often accused the Congress of minority appeasement and Rahul’s temple visits are part of an attempt to change that impression.
The image makeover exercise is also in line with the findings of a four-member panel, headed by former defence minister and Congress veteran AK Antony, tasked to look into the reasons for the 2014 debacle. In its report, the panel concluded that fighting polls on the secularism versus communalism plank had hurt the Congress as it was identified as a pro-minority party, which resulted in substantial gains for the BJP. The Congress also failed to drive home the point that minority and majority communalism were equally dangerous for the country.
The Congress’ minority appeasement policy had also proved counterproductive as it failed to reap any electoral dividend from the strategy. Besides, frequent statements by some party leaders on the Muslim quota issue had also antagonised and alienated the majority community.
However, the Congress dismisses the suggestion that it is going for an image change. “Rahulji insists that Indian flag is his religion. For him, a temple, a mosque, a gurdwara or a church is where he goes to pray for peace and prosperity of our people,” party spokesman Tom Vadakkan said.
Political analysts see Rahul’s visit as a “symbolic” act. “He is trying to do a balancing act. Congress cannot leave the minorities and at the same time, cannot afford to antagonise the majority community,” said Prof Badri Narayan of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Will it help the Congress in terms of electoral gains in the state where caste and religion influence the outcome? “Congress is trying to appease both the communities. This is a major change in its politics but I don’t think the move will have any significant impact on the poll outcome,” Narayan said.
Assembly elections will be held in UP along with Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur in February-March next year. The Congress had won just 28 of the 403 seats in the 2012 assembly polls.
To regain power in the politically important state after 27 years, the Congress is desperately trying to win back the support of its traditional vote bank of Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits that have over the years moved away from it.