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Gujarat elections: Pakistan spectre, talk of Rahul Gandhi’s Hindu credentials worrying, writes Barkha Dutt

The disturbing bit was for the Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala to claim that Gandhi was not just a Hindu; he was a ‘janeu-dhari’ believer. This referencing of the ‘sacred thread’ with all its upper caste connotations was a desperate me-too moment for the Congress that militated against its claim of being a party for the Dalits, minorities and tribals

columns Updated: Dec 16, 2017 09:23 IST
Gujarat polls,Gujarat elections,Rahul Gandhi
Congress vice-President Rahul Gandhi at a public meeting in Amreli, Gujarat, November 29, 2017 (PTI)

Unlike other journalists or pollsters, I have no predictions to make about the Gujarat elections. Previous attempts - most notably in Uttar Pradesh - have shown that voters are increasingly private about their political choices and reporters are mostly outsmarted. So am happy to wait for the counting day instead of indulging in me-too punditry.

What I’d like to talk about, instead, were two back-to-the-future moments in this campaign that were disturbing - and in my view - unhealthy for our democracy: the return of Pakistan as a domestic political issue and the unholy squabbles over sacred threads, Hindu identity and the caste hierarchies the argument itself symbolised.

The brouhaha over the meeting between former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and the serving Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood at the residence of suspended Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar is a case in point. Globally, foreign policy decisions are often legitimate triggers for ferocious domestic disputes. Think of the Iraq War or the Arab Spring interventions in the West and their hot-potato value in elections.

So if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had chosen to elucidate why his handling of Pakistan has been more effective than or distinct from that of his predecessor, it would be kosher. The BJP would also be well within its rights to rhetorically question whether the Singh’s pre-Partition roots made him a romantic and impractical peacenik about Pakistan. (Actually, every BJP PM from AB Vajpayee to Modi has shown more innovation and risk-taking with Pakistan than any other leader).

But to insinuate that one of India’s main Opposition parties, not to mention a former Indian Army chief, would discuss a domestic Indian election with official representatives of a hostile nation is to drive a wedge through your own people and hand over an unnecessary gloating advantage to Pakistan. While it is a compliment to the BJP’s fighting spirit that it treats every contest as a do-or-die battle and pulls no punches – and while everyone knows that election heat and dust can throw up seasonal sandstorms that vanish as swiftly as they came at the end of the day, with all our differences, we all stand as Indians, united against any external interference or threats. My main disagreement with the Pakistan invective is that it gives Islamabad the sort of rhetorical play in our elections that it does not deserve and worse, makes us argue among ourselves.

Another moment that was unsettling was the quarrel over whether Rahul Gandhi is a practising Hindu and the Congress ‘defence’ of it. Note how the Congress avoided any explicit Muslim outreach in Gujarat this time. Note also that this was not only because of a recalibrated strategy to challenge the BJP on policy instead of polemics. The Congress did not discard contestation over religious identity politics in a sudden epiphany about its wastefulness; in fact the Congress consciously drew on the language and symbols of the Hindu faith to court the Gujarati voter.

Again, there is no problem in a political party choosing to draw a separation between Hinduism and political Hindutva. It’s probably about time that the Congress re-examines whether its Nehruvian model of secularism is too sanitised, dry and deracinated to capture the wonderful liberal pluralism of India. So, while the fact that this election leaves the Muslim voter at the irrelevant margins of the election campaign is a definite problem, Rahul Gandhi’s ‘temple run’ is not at all an issue in itself (except for it looking a trifle self-conscious.) The disturbing bit was for the Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala to claim that Gandhi was not just a Hindu; he was a ‘janeu-dhari’ believer. This referencing of the ‘sacred thread’ with all its upper caste connotations was a desperate me-too moment for the Congress that militated against its claim of being a party for the Dalits, minorities and tribals.

Yes, caste identity never quite left this campaign and went well beyond the usual arithmetic algorithms. Even the suspension of Aiyar for his elitist word play on the word ‘neech’ for the PM was born from the keen awareness of how caste biases can be perceived in the dustbowl of India’s ground realities. But it must be a first for India’s oldest political party to actually tom-tom a symbol that has clear hierarchical caste positioning. It is one thing for a Dalit or an OBC leader to talk about caste prejudice; quite another for a party that claims inclusive politics as its USP to embrace a gentrified brahminical/upper caste ritualism. Both the attack on Rahul Gandhi for not being Hindu and the language the Congress chose to contend otherwise were problematic.

On Monday, the winner takes all. But these two moments in the campaign did neither the BJP nor the Congress proud.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 15, 2017 17:35 IST