Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi appears to be determined to correct perceptions not only about himself but also about his own party. His trip to the Kedarnath shrine by his own admission was aimed at removing the fear factor amongst pilgrims to the holy place, especially after floods devastated large parts of Uttrakhand, killing thousands in 2013. He also spoke about his spiritual experience during his visit to the temple. However, what was clear to political observers was that Rahul was all along conscious that the reasons for the Congress decline included the generally held view that in its ten years in power the party had moved away from the Hindus and had shown a tilt towards the minorities. This belief, rightly or wrongly, got strengthened when the Congress president Sonia Gandhi met the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari shortly before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The meeting was publicised by the electronic media, leading to polarisation amongst a large section of Hindus, a factor that helped the BJP and its spearhead Narendra Modi to hand down the worst ever defeat to the grand old party.
The perception over the Congress tilt towards minorities started when, at every given opportunity, the central leadership would try and accommodate a person from the minority community in various bodies. While there is nothing wrong in filling up positions with minorities, the actions contributed to a feeling that the party was not inclined towards the majority community and was practising politics based on minority vote banks. It is another thing that in the end, neither the minorities nor the majority community stood by the scam tainted government and threw it out of power.
The perception that the Congress is tilted towards minorities was not built overnight but over a period of time. Rahul has realised this late. He is now trying to take a leaf out of Indira Gandhi’s book and make Congress shed any kind of preferences or prejudices.
Such a perception was not built overnight but over a period of time. Congressmen themselves were incapable of highlighting this pro-minority stance at various meetings, but would flag it by stating that the UPA government was unique and truly secular. The Prime Minister was a Sikh (Manmohan Singh), the Foreign Minister (Salman Khurshid), a Muslim, the Defence Minister (A.K.Anthony) a Christian and the Home Minister (Sushilkumar Shinde) a Dalit. In addition, the party president was born a Christian and her political secretary (Ahmed Patel) was a Muslim. The complexion of the government and the party demonstrated that the leadership was suffering from a Minority-Dalit obsession, which continues perhaps even after the party got a huge drubbing. While all the above mentioned people were very capable and experienced and fully deserved their positions, the party was somehow not able to explain why the Brahmins and Rajputs, besides other castes, were not getting as much importance. These things may not matter to educated people who are truly secular but they do influence the thinking of a large section, something which no political party can ever afford. The Congress discovered this truth to its own peril in the elections. Even now, by denying someone like Kamal Nath, a nine-time Member of Parliament from Chhindwara, his rightful place, the high command has shown that it still preferred to go by its earlier practice.
This is what is sought to be changed by Rahul, who is trying to take a leaf out of his grandmother Indira Gandhi’s book and make Congress shed any kind of preferences or prejudices. Indira Gandhi never talked about minorities, but largely referred to them as part of the weaker sections and poor, whose messiah she projected herself to be. She would never miss an opportunity to go to a temple or a religious shrine to take blessings of the deity and all these factors contributed in making her the greatest mass leader of the last century. Rahul has realised this rather late, but knows that this is one way of resurrecting his image after his 56-day sabbatical. His newfound aggression at last Sunday’s rally was a departure from the way his mother has functioned. He has taken the Prime Minister head on even in Parliament, although Narendra Modi has not retaliated in his inimitable way so far. The Kedarnath trip would help in correcting the balance of the perceived tilt towards minorities if Rahul follows it up with a trip to Hardwar and some well known Hindu shrines apart from those of other religions. Symbolism has always played a role in Indian politics.
For Rahul Gandhi, there are several challenges. First, he has to prove his detractors wrong that he lacks consistency. Number two, he has to tell his opponents that he was serious. Number three, he has to overcome the resistance from within his own party as this is a bigger task than taking on the BJP. Fourth, he has to shed some of his own advisers, who have been trying to influence him by the theoretical knowledge of their understanding of politics, and finally, he has to win over many of his seniors who have huge experience of dealing with delicate situations. To achieve his objectives, he has to win the battle against time. Between us.