In the ensuing elections the Congress is desperately trying to counter Narendra Modi’s seemingly unstoppable popularity. Party apologists are appealing to the electorate in the name of safeguarding secularism. Such an appeal whitewashes the party’s own complicity in laying the foundation of Hindutva politics. Through this appeal, the electorate is expected to forget the ways in which the Congress took recourse to orchestrating communal violence against Muslims and Sikhs ever since its electoral dominance began to crack in the 1960s. In the final years of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime, when she actively began to speak of ‘protecting’ Hinduism in the face of the crisis unfolding in Punjab, the Congress appropriated the mantle of the Hindu Right.
After her, it was her son Rajiv Gandhi who fanned the flames surrounding the dispute over the Babri masjid in Ayodhya. His actions directly led to the demolition of the mosque by Hindu Right-wing activists on December 6, 1992. During interviews I conducted in Ahmedabad with Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai, one of our interlocutors in Muslim-majority Jamalpur said, “For Muslims the choice is whether to be shot with a gun held by Modi or be beaten by clubs wielded by the Congress.”
Indeed, the foundation of Hindutva politics could be said to have been laid by the post-independence Congress leaders who unhesitatingly considered India to be in essence a Hindu country. The newly appointed President of the Indian Republic, Rajendra Prasad, considered it his honourable duty to wash the feet of 200-odd Hindu priests in Varanasi. He and home minister Vallabhbhai Patel did not flinch from participating in laying the foundation of the refurbished temple at Somnath. Even that supposed fount of secularism in the Congress, the darling of the self-styled progressive elite, England-educated Jawaharlal Nehru did not so much as blush when the honorific of ‘Pandit’, a title used by religious scholars, was conferred upon him. In his The Discovery of India he can scarcely conceal his admiration for what he called ‘the record of public service and personal sacrifice for the public good’ (page 87) of the Brahman caste. Independent India made its ‘tryst with destiny’, under his watch, to the blaring of conch shells, a replay of Hindu rituals attending to the anointment of kings by priests in an earlier era. This history matters because it emphasises the continuities between the Congress and the BJP.
Contemporary discourses matter too. And here again, the similarities are uncanny. The BJP’s tilt towards Hindu idioms is commonly known. It is when the Congress mouths sentiments that ‘Hinduism is the most effective guarantor of secularism in India’ — as it did in a Congress Working Committee resolution in 1999 under Sonia Gandhi’s stewardship — that its substantive continuity with the Sangh parivar becomes evident (as a thought experiment, substitute ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ with ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Turkey’ and ‘France’ with ‘India’). Secularism in India deserves better champions than the Congress.
It is time to think about serious political contenders that can challenge both the Congress and the BJP. One such contender is Mayawati, the former chief minister of a state with over 200 million people, under whose watch the state’s law and order situation was remarkable. The BSP is steadily emerging as a party of choice among Dalits and Muslims at least in Uttar Pradesh, and is being talked of as posing the most tangible threat to Modi’s march to Delhi. Another contender is Nitish Kumar, who currently rules a state with a population of over 100 million. He has successfully prevented Hindu Rightist mischief-mongers from fomenting communal trouble ever since his party severed political links with the BJP last year. A defence of secularism in the country entails the defeat of both the Congress and the BJP in the ongoing elections.
Indrajit Roy is research fellow, St Antony’s College, Department of International Development, University of Oxford
The views expressed by the author are personal