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Running out of ideas

The Congress’s strategy of keeping mum on secularism during its Gujarat campaign was a result of political indolence and shrinking imagination, writes Ajaz Ashraf.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2013 22:43 IST
Ajaz Ashraf
Ajaz Ashraf

There are different versions of the profound observation ascribed to Martin Luther King, yet the meaning, shorn of its specific context, reads: the ultimate tragedy of mankind is not the brutality of the bad but the silence of the good. For all of us — secularists, Leftists, liberals, pacifist Hindus, minorities et al — who believe Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s hat-trick victory presages a decisive threat to the very idea of India, King’s statement is what we should remember as we enter the New Year and gird up for battles ahead.

It is a statement the Congress, too, should remember, having come a cropper despite its refusal to utter the M-word or ideologically counter Hindutva in the weeks before the Gujarat assembly elections. It did not debate secularism nor even did it articulate the idea of eclectic, compassionate, tolerant Hinduism, palpably apprehensive of Modi projecting the party as anti-Hindu. Succinctly, the Congress feared alienating Hindus and did not feel the need to woo Muslims whose votes it thought it was certain of garnering.

Election strategy, the realists would argue, must always take precedence over the trumpeting of ideology, for the vanquishing of the BJP is anyway a triumph for secularism. They are likely to push the Congress to replicate the Gujarat strategy in the general elections of 2014. The defining feature of this strategy is to harp on economic policies, particularly poverty alleviation programmes, and exploit the indisputable but waning charisma of the Gandhis. It precludes the possibility of re-educating people on the idea of India, or the kind of Indian and Hindu they wish to become.

This is largely because the Congress has come to harbour a warped idea of secularism, mistakenly believing it means little more than the protection of minorities. Perhaps it feels the BJP’s project of ‘Making India Hindu’, which is the title of historian David Ludden’s book, doesn’t worry the majority community. For a party which crafted the secular identity for India, it is indeed astonishing it should ignore the extortionate price Pakistanis are paying for living under an Islamic State.

But the Congress is scarcely a party of ideas any longer, nor a vehicle of social movement, a tragic consequence of having wielded power for decades. Not for it the onerous task of countering divisive societal trends through grassroots movements that could help renew the faith of people in the idea of India and win their hearts and minds. This is a logical culmination of political indolence, shrinking imagination and cynical electoral calculation. In hindsight, it seems such a cruel joke that while the Congress believed its strategy of not uttering the M-word in Gujarat could wean away the Hindus from Modi, the man organised his dubious sadbhavna yatras.

The intellectual atrophy in the Congress is also why its managers won’t construe Modi’s current victory too pessimistically. It serves it well that there would now be a rising crescendo in the BJP to project Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Why? The answer: even the remote possibility of Modi becoming prime minister will exert a countervailing pressure on Muslims and secularists of all hues who harbour ideas of supporting non-Congress, non-BJP formations, which, because of their regional base, can’t challenge Hindutva on their own. More importantly, the Congress can hope to poll their votes without having to explicitly woo them, particularly Muslims, therefore not risking a counter-Hindu mobilisation.

Should the BJP project Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, he could become to the 2014 election what the Babri Masjid issue was to the 1989 and 1991 elections. It is possible that regional formations and parties representing subaltern castes could stall his rise. It’s also possible that many of them, after hollering about secularism, could cut deals with him. For the moment, though, forget the possibility of Modi becoming prime minister. Think of the battering that the idea of India has been receiving from 1947.

Indeed, the interminable battle for altering the basis of our nationhood has entered a new phase. Hindutva’s challenge received a setback at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. It occupied centre-stage, again, through the cow-protection movement in the 1960s, but was pushed back at the emergence of Indira Gandhi, her economic policies, and her victory in the 1971 war. The Ram temple movement provided the Hindutva forces an unprecedented impetus for growth. In each phase the secular basis of India’s identity was progressively weakened, now quite clearly lacking the solidity to withstand Modi and his heady mix of cult worship, Hindutva and development.

The frightening image of what India can become is symbolised by Zafar Sareshwala, a Gujarati Muslim BMW-dealer who has engaged Modi. He has justified his decision saying he and other Muslims had no other alternative but to talk to Modi. Yet Sareshwala unconsciously revealed his thoughts in an interview to Comparing his initiative to the parleys between Palestinians and Israelis at the time Intifada had peaked, Sareshwala said, “Who were the Palestinians talking to? They were talking to Ariel Sharon.” Ask the Congress: can we now only be a Hindutva votary or live in abject helplessness, dependent on the mercy of those who threaten India’s very being?

Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist

(The views expressed by the author are personal)