Congress is drifting away from Nehruvian thought to adopt the aggressiveness of the Sangh Parivar to attract votes on communal lines.
Is Rahul Gandhi trying to turn the clock back and undo what his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru espoused in 1950? His penchant for visits to temples and muths, which has been visible since the Gujarat elections in 2017 and Karnataka elections earlier this year, has accentuated during the current campaign in five states. Congress spokespersons have been emphasising his status as a “Shiv bhakt”, “janeu-dhari Brahmin” and citing his gotra to underscore that Indian National Congress is a party of Hindus.
Post Independence, the much discussed spat between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel had an important sideshow. It was the election of a prominent Allahabad Congressman, Rajrishi Purushottam Das Tandon as the Congress president in the September 1950 Nashik session of AICC. Tandon was propped by Patel and he defeated Nehru’s candidate, Acharya J. B. Kripalini. (Patel also ensured that Dr Rajendra Prasad became the first President of India, though he was not Nehru’s preferred choice: Prasad-Nehru differences over Somnath temple were to follow in post-Patel years.)
Tandon and Nehru differed on perception. Nehru was not keen to embrace the Patel-Tandon approach of projecting Congress as a “Hindu party”. He wanted secularism, with equal respect for all religions to be the party’s talisman. This, despite the fact that the nation was reeling under the fury of post-partition communal frenzy, as also the fact that while Muslim League was taken as the “Muslim party”, the British had treated Congress as the representative of the Hindu standpoint. The Hindu Mahasabha, founded in 1915, had at its helm Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and Lala Lajpat Rai—Malviya served two terms as Congress president and the Lion of Punjab, as Lajpat Rai was called, served one term as Congress president.
Nehru stood his ground. Patel passed away in December of 1950 and by March 1951, Tandon had to step down and make way for Nehru to hold both the posts of Prime Minister and Congress president (he held the post for three terms, making way for U.N. Dhebar at Avadi in 1955). The Nehru-Tandon spat set the course for Congress, which Rahul Gandhi seems to be revisiting and in the process perhaps providing grist to the BJP’s propaganda mill.
Hinduism does not have baptism—anyone professing the faith, even if not born into it, is free to claim to be a Hindu. The controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s origins, therefore, is questionable. But his party’s latest claim regarding his gotra and him being a “janeu-dhari” is not in sync with Congress tradition. It tends to insult both who are and who are not “janeu-dhari”, and those who not being Hindu are not subject to the concept of patriarchal gotra.
Hindus are presumed to have as their ancestors the “Saptrishis”—the seven sages: Vishwamitra, Jamdagni, Bharadwaj, Gautam, Atreya, Vasishta, Kashyap. There are 47 sub-gotras or “pravar” which take root in the seven gotras. The Hindu Marriage Act 1956 lays down prohibited degrees of relationship based on the gotra system. Gotra passes from father to son. Daughters transcend from their parental gotra to the gotra of their husband on marriage. If a non-Hindu male marries a Hindu lady then his father-in-law has the option of adopting either him or the offspring of such marriage and gotra can be passed on—as also the benefits of Hindu Succession Act and the income tax laws for undivided Hindu families.
In case of Rahul Gandhi, his grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, had married Indira Nehru in August 1942 at a “Gandhian Vedic ceremony”, which as on that date did not have standing in law (it is said a civil registration took place later, but this is not verified in any account). At his mother’s insistence, Feroze had worn during the ceremony the Parsi holy thread, which was bestowed upon him during his Navjote (initiation) ceremony as a Parsi.
Feroze Gandhi’s biographer, the Swedish journalist Bertil Falk, in her well-researched tome, Feroze, The Forgotten Gandhi has chronicled the wedding as well as Feroze’s funeral in 1960. According to her, Feroze was cremated in Nigambodh Ghat and half of his ashes were immersed at the Sangam and the other half buried at the Parsi cemetery at Allahabad’s Rajapur Road. An Oothaamna ceremony as per Parsi custom was held for Feroze Gandhi at Allahabad’s Hotel Finaro on 10 September 1960. Falk describes the firebrand parliamentarian, who pioneered scam busting on Lok Sabha floor, as “non-religious”, who was neither a devoted Parsi nor had he converted to Hinduism. “Feroze and Indira’s sons, according to rules observed by the Parsis, may have been Parsis by birth but they were never Zoroastrians by choice,” Falk writes.
The controversy regarding Rahul’s gotra ironically was stirred up on 26 November (which is anniversary of the adoption of India’s Constitution) when he visited Pushkar after paying obeisance at the Ajmer dargah. He was described as a “Kaul-Dattatreya”, the gotra which Motilal Nehru had recorded when he went to Pushkar in 1924. Dattatreya denotes a sub-gotra derived from Atreya Rishi. Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945 and 1964; Indira Gandhi in 1980; Sanjay Gandhi months before his tragic death in April 1980, Rajiv Gandhi thrice during the decade of the 1980s and Rahul Gandhi himself in his previous visit in 2013 had used this identity while offering prayers. No controversy was stirred.
The present brouhaha is the result of Congress drifting away from Nehruvian thought to adopt the aggressiveness of the Sangh Parivar to attract votes on communal lines. In his attacks on Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi borrows the acerbic tactics of Rammanohar Lohia and Raj Narain and his approach to religiosity seems to be skewed towards the viewpoint of Purushottam Das Tandon. If Congress is to find its feet and be relevant in the nation’s political discourse, Rahul Gandhi will have to adopt the Nehru-Gandhi adage.