By hosting an iftar dinner at a five star hotel in the capital, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has unwittingly exposed the faultlines in the Opposition unity, while simultaneously assisting its principal adversary, the BJP to reiterate and emphasise its charge of Muslim appeasement. The iftar function held at the Taj Palace hotel in the Diplomatic Enclave, has in no manner, lent a hand to the Congress in reaping any kind of political dividends. Nor has it helped the grand old party to improve its networking amongst Muslims, since no prominent community leaders present on the occasion were in focus, with the spotlight primarily remaining on Pranab Mukherjee.
In fact, it appeared that the main objective of the iftar was to showcase the former President fresh from his return from the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Virtually for the whole day after the iftar party was announced, speculation was rife whether Pranab would be present at the venue or not. After he trooped in he was the cynosure of all eyes, and little attention was paid to either his predecessor Pratibha Patil or the erstwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Similarly, Muslim leaders were in the backdrop and the entire purpose of hosting the party seemed purposeless since most felt that it would have been a better idea if the function had been held at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) office in place of the Taj Palace hotel. Interestingly, the Congress, over the past few years, had discontinued the iftar bonhomie after senior leader A.K. Antony had confirmed that the perception of the party having a pronounced tilt towards the minorities had contributed to its rout in the 2014 parliamentary polls.
It is precisely because of this reason the decision to mark the iftar ritual was interpreted in power circles as politically unviable since it has been more favourable towards BJP rather than providing the requisite boost to the Congress. Over the past several months, Rahul Gandhi had been working overtime to erase the impression of the pro-minority bias of his party by visiting various temples, thus declaring himself as a practising Hindu. Apparently, the dinner at the hotel proved counter-productive, making his pro-Hindu strategy appear both unconvincing and inadequate. The Congress president, somehow, has not comprehended, that the minority-Dalit obsession promoted during Sonia Gandhi’s tenure, has been not well-received by the masses. On the contrary, this political slant has not attracted either the Muslims or the Dalits to the party fold since they continue to exhibit preference for regional parties capable of defeating the BJP in various areas.
What is baffling in the entire issue is that why the Congress has gone out of its way to prove its secular credentials. Those who believe in the party’s ideology always presumed that it did not differentiate between people on the basis of religion. The Congress stood for all, and the political idiom of Indira Gandhi, its greatest mass leader, reflected the grammar. The former Prime Minister never ever singled out minorities for any preferential treatment and in her public appearances always made a strong case in favour of the weaker sections, which would include every section of society. The predicament is that the present leadership of the party has deviated from the Indira Gandhi brand of politics and has instead introduced its own caste and community centric equations which somehow do not seem to be working.
If in Sonia Gandhi’s period, the emphasis was on the minorities, Rahul’s advisers want him to pay greater attention to the OBCs, who, incidentally, have, by and large, never been inclined to vote for the Congress, given their pre-disposition towards regional parties, many of whom have their origins in the Socialist movement. The erstwhile Socialists, whose politics had its roots in anti Congressism, have excelled in wooing backward castes. Ram Manohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur served as an inspiration for a whole generation of leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar.
The Congress strength was in the universality of its appeal, and upper castes, particularly Brahmins, ensured in one way or the other that the OBCs did not gather together on a common platform. Charan Singh introduced his own cocktail of OBC, forward and minority politics when he successfully experimented with the Majgar (Muslim, Ahir, Jat, Gurjar and Rajput) formula in Uttar Pradesh to counter the Congress. However, the combination subsequently collapsed under the weight of its own inherent social contradictions.
The iftar dinner, hosted by Rahul Gandhi, brought in some harsh home truths as well. No major Opposition leader, barring Sitaram Yechury and Sharad Yadav, attended the function, though some of them like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, H.D. Kumaraswamy and M.K. Stalin sent emissaries to mark their token presence. The outcome was that in the media narrative, the Congress appeared isolated, since out of the 18 parties that had been invited, only six or seven were represented.
What is imperative is that the Congress should realise that several Opposition parties are formulating a strategy which would diminish its role in the proposed Mahagathbandan (Grand Alliance). Therefore, on one hand it has to keep its relevance intact, while on the other hand, the Congress has to ensure that the BJP does not take advantage of either its limitations or its ill-conceived proposals. This is one iftar party that would go down in history as where the Congress provided an upper hand to the BJP. Between us.