At an India Today media conclave in early 2018, Sonia Gandhi made a rather candid confession: the BJP, she said, had managed to convince many people that the Congress is a ‘Muslim party’. The Congress president’s remarks, in a sense, were a tacit admission that Nehruvian secularism had failed to combat the rising tide of political Hindutva. Her words were also echoing the party’s Antony committee report, drafted in the aftermath of the 2014 election debacle but never made public, that the Congress was seen as ‘pro-Muslim’ and ‘anti-Hindu’. Three years later, as we enter another election season, the Congress’s predicament is even more stark: the party’s secular identity is once again being questioned as it is accused of openly aligning with ‘Muslim’ parties.
In Kerala, the Congress’s long-standing alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League is under the scanner with both the ruling Left Front and the BJP targeting the party for being partial to the League’s interests and overlooking other communities. In Assam, the Congress has tied up with perfume businessman-politician, Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party which is seen to primarily represent the concerns of the state’s large Bengali speaking Muslim immigrant population. And in West Bengal, the Congress is part of a Left-led alliance that now includes the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a party started by a local cleric Abbas Siddiqui whose past public utterances are highly contentious. In each instance, the BJP has been unsurprisingly flagging these alliances to consolidate its own Hindu vote bank.
The nature of these alliances and the reaction to them reflects the deepening crisis within the Congress and indeed within mainstream secular politics. For the Congress, this is a crisis which has been building up for decades ever since Indira Gandhi inserted ‘secularism’ into the preamble of the constitution via the 42nd amendment during the Emergency in 1976. Mrs Gandhi’s move was classic realpolitik, designed to consolidate her hold among minorities while cornering her political rivals. Unlike Nehru, for whom secularism was an article of faith, Indira was guilty of practising ‘lip-service’ secularism especially after returning to power in 1980. Then be it in Punjab, Assam or Jammu and Kashmir, Mrs Gandhi appeared to shun the pretense of secularism in the race for votes by cynically aligning with religious forces of all hues. That even a militant secessionist like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was patronized to target the Akali Dal only showed how she was playing with fire. It was a fire that would tragically end in her assassination.
Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister put further strain on secular values by appeasing both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. Then be it overturning a court judgment in the Shahbano case and banning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses on the one hand or opening the Babri masjid locks and allowing a shilanyas to be performed at the contentious site in Ayodhya on the other, the Rajiv government allowed itself to be tangled in placating religious extremism. The politics of running with the secular hare and hunting with the communal hound through the turbulent 1980s would eventually culminate in the LK Advani-led Ram rath yatra and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and propel the BJP and the wider sangh parivar into a position of power.
Since then, while the saffron brotherhood has gone from strength to strength, the Congress has struggled to find a consistent ideological and organizational response to the challenge posed by strident and divisive Hindutva nationalism. The party has oscillated between a Manmohan Singh as prime minister affirming that minorities, particularly Muslims, have the ‘first claim’ on government resources to a Rahul Gandhi going temple hopping ahead of a Gujarat election and the party asserting that their leader is a ‘Janeu-Dhari’ Hindu. As a result, the centrist secular space that firmly rejects religion as a marker of political identity has over time been hollowed out, leaving behind an empty shell of platitudes and compromises.
The Congress now finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Appealing to any kind of Hindu ‘sentiment’ only leaves it looking like a ‘B team’ of the BJP, an unconvincing copy of the original party of majoritarianism. The short-lived Kamal Nath-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, for example, attempted to play its version of ‘cow politics’ but with little resonance on the ground. On the other hand, forging alliances with smaller, Muslim-centric parties also appears like a short-term fix for temporary, uncertain electoral gains without a clear long term strategy in place. For example, in Assam’s surcharged post Citizenship Amendment Act politics, the Congress-AIUDF alliance may sweep the Muslim-dominated seats of Lower Assam but will almost inevitably spark off a sharp counter-polarisation in the rest of the state. In a sharply divided Bengal, a tie-up with the ISF is not only ideologically incompatible but will only further split the Muslim vote between Mamata Banerjee and the Left-Congress-ISF alliance, thereby making the BJP’s task of capturing the state that much easier. Ironically, the left which attacks the Congress in Kerala for its IUML partnership has had few compunctions in pushing for an alliance with an Islamic cleric in Bengal: it is these underlying hypocrisies in the secular project that have weakened it morally and politically.
Sadly, the worst sufferers in the credibility crisis facing politically ‘negotiable’ mainstream secularism have been the minorities. Isolated and demonized by the Hindutva brigade, their patriotism routinely called into question, the rightward lurch in Indian politics has only made Muslims in particular feel fearful and resentful. Their anxieties and grievances with secular politics have seen many younger Muslims turn to the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi as potential ‘protectors’ and defenders of the faith. In the recent Gujarat local body polls for example, Owaisi’s party, the All India Majlis-e-ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won seven of the eight seats it contested in Godhra and emerged as the main opposition party in Modasa town. Most of these seats were previously won by the Congress. Clearly, even Muslim voters are looking for alternatives that go beyond clichéd and bogus definitions of secularism.
Post-script: The BJP has attacked the Congress’s secular vision for aligning with an Islamic cleric in Bengal. However, the party happily advertises the fact that India’s most populous state is run by a saffron-robed Hindu head priest aligned to a religious monastery. Or are the rules in vote-bank politics different for a Yogi in a temple to that for a dargah Maulvi?