In this age of social media outrage, prime time noise and WhatsApp forwards, every word spoken or written in the public domain travels across the universe in real time supersonic speed. The BJP’s vast social media army in particular has mastered the art of latching onto even the slightest slip by its political opponents to create a storm in cyberspace and beyond. The latest example are the sharp reactions to Congress leader Salman Khurshid whose one line in a book on the Ayodhya judgement drawing a parallel between a ‘robust version’ of political Hindutva and the jihadist Islam of terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram has re-ignited familiar religious outrage in election season.
Khurshid has since attempted to clarify that he was only trying to distinguish between classical Hinduism as dharmic faith and Hindutva as its political exploitation but the damage has been done. Even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has waded into the strident debate by claiming that “Hinduism isn’t about hate or killing innocent individuals but Hindutva is.” In effect, Mr Gandhi without specifically endorsing the Khurshid line, is also calling for an ideological ‘war’ on the sangh parivar.
As a purely academic argument, the ‘Hinduism versus Hindutva’ contest of religious and political constructs is worth debating but to then stretch it to suggest that a ‘version’ of Hindutva is ‘similar’ to ISIS-Boko Haram can only further muddy the troubled waters. The more toxic forms of political Hindutva have certainly ruptured Hindu-Muslim relations and even led at times to terrible acts of violence in the name of religion: the gau rakshak vigilantes and the Bajrang Dal lynch mobs are driven by maddening religious hatred. The failure of the RSS-BJP leadership to unequivocally condemn every such violent act has led to a ‘normalisation’ of hate and allowed these forces of vicious bigotry to get away with impunity. But can the sangh parivar’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra, for all its disturbing anti-constitutional perversions, be seriously compared to the Islamic State, a heavily armed jihadi terror organization with a global footprint whose avowed credo is a violent takeover of nation-states and whose prime enemy are fellow Islamists? Or indeed the Nigeria-based Boko Haram that has killed thousands of people in terror strikes and displaced millions of people from their homes?
The controversial line in Khurshid’s book may well enable the author to sell a few more copies and Rahul Gandhi’s video may well have gone viral but it is unlikely to garner their party any extra votes, especially in the Hindutva heartland of Uttar Pradesh. Maybe with the Congress still a marginal player in the fight in India’s most populous state, the party leadership feels it has little to lose by raising the pitch. But just ahead of a crucial election, it only gives the BJP another opportunity to distract public attention from the more potentially damaging ‘people-centric’ local issues like fuel price hikes, rising unemployment, Covid mismanagement and revert the narrative instead to typically religiously polarizing rhetoric. On the election road, wading unthinkingly into religious politics at the moment is like stepping into a minefield, a searingly divisive battle in which there can be only one winner.
In a sense, this latest frontal attack on political Hindutva reveals the palpable confusion amongst the opposition parties on how precisely to meet the challenge posed by the rising saffron tide. Just four years ago, during the 2017 Gujarat elections, Rahul Gandhi had suddenly worn his Hindu identity on his sleeve while temple-hopping and proudly proclaiming himself as a ‘janeu-dhari’ Hindu. Other opposition political leaders too have been mindful in emphasizing their Hindu roots through public displays of religiosity: then be it an Arvind Kejriwal while reciting the Hanuman Chalisa just ahead of the 2020 Delhi elections or Mamta Banerjee defining herself as a Hindu Brahmin woman who could chant the Chandipath during the Bengal election campaign this year. The Hindu incantation was arguably strategic ‘soft’ Hindutva designed to challenge the monopoly of the BJP leadership over a so-called Hindu vote bank.
So which is the way to go: rant against the sangh parivar’s Hindutva ideology or compete with it and offer a more inclusive Hindu alternative? Recent election history suggests that viciously name calling the sangh parivar’s Hindutva as ‘anti-Hindu’ as a political strategy is doomed to fail unless it is backed by a strong alternate ideological positioning or credible leadership. Recall the stinging backlash to former home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s ‘saffron terror’ remarks in 2013. The Rahul-Khurshid diatribe for example allows the sangh parivar to stoke a deliberate ‘Hindu as victim’ sentiment, part of a wider religio-cultural battle between the ethnically rooted ‘Hindu nationalists’ and an anglicised elite. Khurshid will be mocked as an influential Indian Muslim who has insulted Hinduism, Rahul as a Hindu-phobic Lutyens ‘naamdar’ (dynast).
In a communally fraught Uttar Pradesh, it is easy for the ruling BJP leadership to prey on imaginary fears and visceral prejudices at the slightest given opportunity and build a majoritarian outlook. Just look at the manner in which the BJP has seized onto Samajwadi party leader’s Akhilesh Yadav’s remarks on Jinnah as a freedom fighter or indeed how chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s ‘abba jaan’ dog-whistle or Talibani slurs have been repeatedly used to stereotype Muslims as ‘anti-national’ or indeed as beneficiaries of minority ‘appeasement’.
However, cowering silence is no longer an option either. For much too long, short-term compromises with religious hotheads and militant groups has caused enormous damage to the cause of vigilant secularism that rejects any attempt to mix religion with politics. The Congress cannot take the moral high ground because it has struck deals in the past with Hindu and Muslim parties for temporary electoral benefit, be it a Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or a Muslim League in Kerala. Moroever, if the Rahul Gandhi-Khurshid zero tolerance for religious hatred is to be pursued now, then it must extend to any and every perpetrator of communal violence, be it those responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, those who target Kashmiri Pandits or those involved in post Ayodhya and post Godhra violence, or indeed those who kill RSS workers in Kerala. Else it will be seen as a hypocritical, one-sided political harangue that is only subject to diminishing returns.
Post-script: In a recent interview with this columnist, Khurshid emphasized that he should not be denied his right to free speech simply because of a possible adverse electoral fallout of his comments. But the kind of literary freedom that an author might enjoy is often very different to that of a practicing politician. Maybe Khurshid and his ilk need to decide: are they erudite legal scholars who seek an intellectually rarefied debate or are they active, hardnosed politicians first.