The Indian polity has moved away from ‘secular fundamentalism’ to a discernible Hindu-ward tilt
Be it in Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits during the assembly elections in Gujarat, or the studied silence of the Trinamool Congress MPs during the triple talaq debate in the Lok Sabha; the BJP’s growing sway has forced political parties to change tacks in the way they approach their campaignsopinion Updated: Jan 04, 2018 10:11 IST
It is often small incidents that presage important developments. On December 28, during the final stages of the Lok Sabha debate on the bill to criminalise triple talaq, Asaduddin Owaisi, the MP for Hyderabad representing the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), pressed for a division on his two amendments.
Owaisi’s reason for doing so was clear. As a bitter opponent of any legislation to regulate Muslim personal laws, he was anxious to have the positions of each party, particularly the parties that professed to oppose the BJP’s alleged dilution of secularism, recorded.
In the end, Owaisi’s amendment received just two votes. The Congress voted against it, as did the Left and the Trinamool Congress, a party that has acquired the reputation of being extremely partial to organised Muslim interests.
It is likely that the relative ease with which the Narendra Modi government secured the passage of the triple talaq bill in the Lok Sabha will not be repeated in the Rajya Sabha. The Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamool Congress – all disproportionately dependant on Muslim votes for their electoral standing – will probably respond to pressure from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and attempt to delay matters by referring the bill to a select committee.
The attempt to be seen as committed to gender justice and at the same time sensitive to organised Muslim pressure may well work momentarily. Since the priority of most Muslim bodies is to secure the defeat of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, the ‘secular’ parties may well be given greater elbow room by the custodians of the Muslim vote to dent the BJP’s Hindu support by all means necessary.
The outcome of the Gujarat assembly election has been seen by the Congress as vindication of a new approach. In challenging the BJP that had won five consecutive elections in the state, the Congress did naturally highlight deficiencies in governance and the teething troubles of the Goods and Services Act. The party also fished in the murky waters of caste politics by promoting the likes of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani.
These normal facets of anti-incumbency politics were complemented by Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s temple visiting spree — including a visit to the Somnath temple whose re-construction in the 1950s had irked Jawaharlal Nehru. It is not that there was an automatic correlation between votes and the 26 temple visits. These acts of symbolic genuflection to Hindu deities were aimed at blunting the BJP’s assertion that the Congress was insensitive to Hindu aspirations and the cultural identity that stemmed from the Hindu faith. The Congress took exceptional care to ensure that the traditional support it received from the Muslim was kept well below the radar. In other words, every step was taken to ensure that the automatic identification of the Congress with ‘minorityism’ was firmly kept under wraps. True, there were moments of embarrassment such as Kapil Sibal’s attempt to delay the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Ayodhya dispute. But this does not take away from the Congress’ conscious attempt to deny the BJP a monopoly claim over Hindu politics.
The Congress, it would seem, has internalised a few lessons from the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 2017. The most important of these is the realisation that any political identification with aggressive Muslim mobilisation can trigger a backlash that can only benefit the BJP. Last summer, Congress leaders berated Modi for his shamshan ghat-kabaristan speech, quite unmindful of the fact that it reflected the Hindu resentment on the ground. In Gujarat, the party did not repeat such mistakes.
It is not merely the Congress that has changed tack. In West Bengal, confronted by repeated charges of Muslim appeasement, Mamata Banerjee appears to have woken up to the reality of rising Hindu disquiet. Last month, she made a big show of overseeing arrangements for pilgrims to the Ganga Sagar mela and even extracted praise from the Hindu Samhati, led by a breakaway group from the RSS. During the triple talaq debate in the Lok Sabha, the Trinamool Congress MPs maintained a studied silence, this despite the involvement of its local leaders in a simmering agitation to prevent state interference in Muslim personal laws.
The growing sway of the BJP all over India has brought about a discernible Hindu-ward tilt in the popular mood. Hitherto, the parties opposing this shift countered it with ‘secular fundamentalism’. We may now be witnessing a shift in emphasis, with Hindu nationalism being regarded as the new consensus.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal