“Cow is our mother, Vajpayee eats her,” was a slogan that Meenakshi Natarajan, now MP and a close aide of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had coined in 2003, referring to the then BJP prime minister’s food habits that were allegedly against traditions.
Such social conservatism has always been a strong force within the Congress — Mahatma Gandhi had to declare his faith in varnashrama when rich contributors threatened to withdraw support to the Sabarmati ashram, when he began to house Dalits there.
Against such a history, and surrounded by many conservatives, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s position on gay rights is uncharacteristic. Several leaders in the party are whispering disagreement. If at all this has an electoral impact, it will be negative for the Congress. But this is an imaginative and bold extension of the idea of “inclusion,” which now positively reaches out to sexual minorities too.
“Inclusion,” as a political slogan helped Congress reclaim power from the BJP in 2004 after a hiatus of eight years. It was a powerful response to the changing economic and social environment of India. Socialism and secularism had become bad words by the turn of the millennium — the first connoting public sector inefficiency and disruptive trade unionism; the second, being seen by many as special privilege to Muslims rather than a basic social covenant.
Even as these words lost their souls, the underlying social realities that made them resonate during an earlier era reproduced themselves in the new context. Rapid economic growth expanded the middle-class and urban centres, but also drove many communities to the edge.
In 2002, Gujarat proved that a high-growth industrial society is not a guarantee against ethnic violence. As those marginalised by market and violence turned away from BJP, Congress responded with the slogan of inclusion.
Offering welfare to those who cannot compete in market and security to threatened minorities, Congress returned to power on a new social contract. That now lies in tatters due to the collapse of governance, but the idea of inclusion achieved an entirely new thrust with the party’s support to LGBTs.