On the face of it, granting no quarter to the opposition is understandable during the polls and war. Therefore, Congress president Sonia Gandhi visiting Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Bukhari, to appeal for a united move to stop the so-called “secular vote” from splitting, consequent to which the leading Muslim cleric urged Muslims to vote chiefly for the Congress looked innocuous. But it is not.
After Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980, the increasing exploitation by the Congress of the ambiguity of secularism for the political use of religion, especially in the form of populist invocations of a majority Hindu identity, was there for all to see. It was a departure from the more secular attitude espoused by Jawaharlal Nehru, the reason for which lay in the steady decline of the Congress as a mass political institution at a time when its authority was under increasing challenge not only from the Hindu right but also low-caste and regional parties — the outcome of the process of the steady ‘democratisation’ of the Indian polity.
According to the 2001 census, 80.5% of the more than a billion Indians were Hindu, 13.4% Muslim, 2.3% Christian, 1.9% Sikh, 0.8% Buddhist and 1.1% others. The Constitution recognises a third of Hindus separately as belonging to the Scheduled Castes — the erstwhile Untouchables or Dalits (16% of the population) or Scheduled Tribes (8%). The remainder can also be variously grouped as upper caste (17%) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), another administratively recognised category (43%). When taken together with the complex system of locally or regionally discrete jatis, this represents a formidable obstacle to the creation of a singular Hindu political identity. On the basis of this demographic distribution, it might be easier to see why political parties eye the Muslim vote-bank to swing votes in their favour.
So when the name of the game is political polarisation, the Congress is as much a willing player as the BJP, or, for that matter, as the SP (though Bukhari supported it in the 2009 polls, he advised against it this year), the BSP (yet another party blacklisted by Bukhari) or the Trinamool Congress (Bukhari urged Muslims to support her party). The only difference is that the Congress claims a proprietary stake to all secular votes.
There is no point in regurgitating the darker stabs of political/communal polarisation in which Rajiv Gandhi was thought to be indirectly responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid as for his role in the Shah Bano case. In opening up of the Babri Masjid on the VHP’s request and in launching his election campaign from Faizabad calling it Ram’s land, he tried to play one community against the other. It bears recall that he had a historical mandate, and the support of the largest number of MPs ever, still his government in the mid-1980s made a series of decisions that changed the contours of the polity, polarising it in profound ways.
In the post-Emergency period, the Congress never had a real Opposition till the BJP shot to prominence after LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1992 that sparked off a communal rioting, in which analysts discovered a striking correlation between where the BJP enjoyed greatest electoral success and the spread of communal violence.
All said and done, all political leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, by seeking to prevail upon Bukhari, or Mamata Banerjee assiduously courting the imams by providing them financial sops earlier on the assumption that it is way cheaper than the social cost of substantive development for Muslims to garner votes, feed on the ghettoisation of the Muslim community. They presume that the Muslims in India have no mind of their own and are so impressionable that they exercise their votes en masse on the instructions of an influential Muslim cleric and that it is only the theologians who represent the communities and their interests. This alone should be viewed as deeply offensive to the Muslims.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.