Vilifying and cursing Rahul Gandhi will not bring about any changes in the fortunes of the Congress. The crisis in the party has become bigger than Mr Gandhi. Harping on secularism or calling upon the secular forces to save the country is unlikely to reap any dividends, for the Congress style of secularism has run its course. The country is not ready to forget the sins the Congress has allegedly committed in the name of secularism. Instead, they are now ready to give a chance to the poster boy of Hindutva to govern India’s most populous state. The staunchest opponents of Yogi Adityanath, whether inside the media or outside, are ready to give him a chance, for the star of Hindu India is shining bright and has captivated everyone around us. To deny the rise and rise of Narendra Modi would be an entirely foolish exercise, for the Prime Minister has achieved the unthinkable—a landslide in UP. His juggernaut has not been halted, rather the UP victory has enthused his party, his supporters and silenced his critics. The absence of ideas in the Congress reflects its ideological bankruptcy, the eroding faith in its secularism and a denial to learn from its own history and that of its tallest leader—Indira Gandhi.
Despite Indira Gandhi’s secular rhetoric, her rise after the 1977 debacle was her ability to take all groups together, reaffirm her faith in secularism, while trying to be a good Hindu, which she very much did in her years in exile. This is not to say it was only Mrs Gandhi who began the trend, for in the 1950s, Congress leaders in UP were often seen on Arya Samaj platforms despite Nehru’s open disapproval.
As for Indira, there weren’t any Shankaracharyas, Pandas, Teerthankars, yogis, or saints whose feet she didn’t touch or whose math she didn’t visit after 1977. Mrs Gandhi knew the demography of the country very well, as well as the pulse of the majority. Secularism was tolerable as long as it did not trample on the feelings and aspirations of the majority Hindus. Secularism was acceptable as long as it did not involve minority appeasement. There is some truth in the fact that during the Emergency, Mrs Gandhi did receive letters from the late RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras. Though there is nothing to claim that she ever responded to them, but she did send him her book, Eternal India. This connection was published widely in the Illustrated Weekly in an article titled “Mrs Gandhi Hindu Connection” published in February 1984. Even if this is an exaggerated account, there is no dearth of visual records that show Mrs Gandhi visiting Shankaracharyas or attending the Maharishi Dayanand Nirvana centenary function. This is not to claim that Indira Gandhi had RSS sympathies or had been converted after Emergency. She liked to work with different political and social outfits and understood the importance of political posturing. While she felt secure about the “Muslim vote”, she knew her other constituents were looking elsewhere. She constantly reinvented herself and her party in light of electoral debacles that threatened her ability to bounce back. Her defeats in the elections in Delhi, where she was convinced that Muslims had not voted for her, made her change her approach when she tried to dislodge Farooq Abdullah’s government in Kashmir and emerged as the saviour of Hindus. Farooq Abdullah, at the time, had come under much criticism for his alleged closeness to Sikh extremists in Punjab in the 1980s. Today for the Congress to cry foul at being outwitted by the BJP in Goa and Manipur after the 2017 elections means bypassing its own history.
Another case of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s strategy became visible when Dr Karan Singh brought the issue of the conversion of Harijans of Meenakashipuram to her notice and within a week a Virat Hindu Sammelan was organised, which many Congressmen attended, of course with her tacit approval. Though Indira did not attend, the sammelan had the full support of the Home Ministry under Giani Zail Singh. It was an RSS affair, and Congress leaders were in full attendance. Newspaper headlines of 1983-84 were dotted with references to Mrs Gandhi and how she had knocked off the BJP’s Hindu base. That these stories or rumours received widespread coverage cannot be missed nor were Mrs Gandhi’s public actions (Onlooker September 23, 1983). Her hard-line attitude against Pakistan was always a plus at a time many felt that the Janata government had not done much in this regard of which the BJP (as Jana Sangh) was an integral part. Her robust and aggressive foreign policy helped her in building her image as Goddess Durga, who was feared and venerated abroad. She exploited the cracks within the Jana Sangh and its political mentor at that point and used it to her advantage. Then came the arrests of mafia don Haji Mastan, Karim Lala and others on the charges of fuelling communal riots in Bombay and other areas, which according to a column in Cover Story, was done to please Hindus. If the Congress today claims that justice is being hampered and denied to Muslims implicated in cases, the Congress seems to have forgotten that it has gone hammer and tongs against Muslims and Muslim leaders whenever it suited it. Moreover, the Congress today has no coherent domestic or foreign policy. Indians want a robust foreign policy as far as Pakistan and China are concerned and Indira Gandhi played to the galleries, something which the Congress of today is not ready to promise even on paper.
The problem today with the Congress is that it has ceased to be a political party with a vision or with an ability to work with diverse groups regardless of differences. An alliance with SP in Uttar Pradesh was done with the sole aim of capturing the Muslim vote, which fuelled Hindu counter-mobilisation on a massive scale. Congress’ inability to explore choices beyond Dalits and Muslims has angered the traditional upper-caste voters of the Congress. They see the party no longer representing their interests, but probably as a sickly version of AIMIM or Jamaat-e-Islami. The Congress has fuelled a religious divide which no longer pays political dividends as the Imams and the maulanas have lost their appeal among the masses, it is time the Congress shakes off the tag of alleged minority appeasement. It is true that Muslims today feel vulnerable, but so do Hindus who feel that in the absence of Mr Modi, they are bound to be discriminated against.
The single most popular appeal of Captain Amarinder Singh in the elections in 2014 and 2017 against the AAP was that he was a Sikh who was fighting to keep Arvind Kejriwal away from Punjab. Community, religion and region are still important in Indian politics and the ascendancy of Yogi Adityanath is a case in point. To say that Congress backed regional satraps in its heydays and should replicate it now is just half-truth. Mrs Gandhi was known to have a good mixture of strong regional leaders and political fixers at any given point in time. This is not to suggest that Indira Gandhi supported regional leaders, she was too astute for that. As long as regional leaders were compliant, she wanted to maintain status quo, but as soon as she felt threatened she used Congress-appointed governors to dislodge them. She used civil servant turned Governor Jagmohan to dislodge the Farooq Abdullah government in Kashmir despite P.N. Haksar advising her against it. This was the case even when Farooq Abdullah had campaigned for the Congress(I) in the 1980 elections and as some would say, he was responsible for the tilt of the Muslim vote. Abdullah’s position threatened Delhi as he was seen as a Muslim leader who had gone outside the Congress fold.
Congress needs to go back to its history, but read it with a fresh perspective. Indira Gandhi knew when she was ascendant she could dispense with a few people at the right time. She understood her party and the country very well. Congress today is plagued with inertia and its inability to weave a credible counter-narrative to the BJP is resulting in its humiliating loss in UP. The problem is that only the Congressmen think they are fighting for minority rights. The minorities, especially Muslims, are not convinced. There is a lack of ideas, which is prompting the party to reinvent secularism again and again, without a real commitment to upholding it. It’s time the party woke up to the reality that the country has changed faster than the party, and it couldn’t simply catch up.