For many, the turning point came in July 2016. In January that year, we were confronted with Rohith Vemula’s suicide note on the front pages of newspapers. His words still make us restless with shame and anger. But the ugly politics that followed showed that the suicide of this bright PhD student of Hyderabad Central University, who had tried to escape the confines of his caste, meant nothing to the Centre.
Two months later, 12-year-old Imtiyaz Khan was lynched. He was accompanying his neighbour, Majlum Ansari, to the cattle market to sell oxen, when both were set upon by a mob of cow vigilantes, killed, and their bodies hung on trees in the forests of Jharkhand.
Akhlaq had been lynched in Dadri, UP, six months earlier. The killings of the child Imtiyaz and his neighbour took the death toll of Muslims by lynching to seven in less than a year.In May came the news that Jawaharlal Nehru’s name had been removed from the Std VIII social science textbook in Rajasthan. Then in July came the Una flogging of four Dalits, suspected of cow slaughter. This savage act was videotaped and telecast into our homes on primetime television.
That’s when even those who had never voted for the Congress till then, repulsed by its venality, arrogance and fake commitment to secularism, began to think of it as the only alternative to replace a government that let all these things happen. But where was the Congress?
Yes Rahul Gandhi met Vemula’s family and joined students in their protests. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the Congress took on the government over lynchings, and that was in Parliament. What compulsions made it reluctant to speak out earlier, if not actually take to the streets? Even in the recent election campaign, Muslims waited in vain to hear the word “lynching”.
Did the Congress at least work silently? Offer help to the families of those lynched or to Una’s Dalits? With so many legal luminaries as its leaders, it wouldn’t have been difficult to help these families fight their unequal battles in court. Muslims in Maharashtra who challenged the state’s beef ban in the Supreme Court had first approached the Congress’ high- profile lawyers, only to realise that secularism etc., notwithstanding, what mattered most was whether you could afford their fees.
Perhaps it was foolish to expect anything else from a party that didn’t even challenge a state school board’s indefensible decision to drop the country’s first PM, and the Congress’ tallest leader, from its textbooks!
Despite all this, the party’s wins in December 2018, coupled with the obvious discontent among those sections whose votes mattered, made people turn towards the Congress with a new optimism this year. Alas! They were soon disillusioned. Conversations with grass-roots level activists from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh reveal that spending five years out of power had not been enough for the party to lose its arrogance. It had not used that time to rebuild from the base; yet, when these workers approached it, they weren’t exactly welcomed.
This writer was witness to a meeting between Muslims and the top Congress leadership in Maharashtra. After listening for an hour to the Muslims venting their anger at the party for its past misdeeds—it had ruled Maharashtra along with the NCP for 15 years before the BJP took over in 2014—the leaders responded in two ways: anger and contempt. The message sent was unmistakable: We don’t need you.
Coupled with this attitude were two formidable obstacles: the impenetrable wall of lackeys that surrounded each local level leader, and the reluctance to spend money not only on ground-level workers, but also on candidates.
It became obvious through the campaign that the Congress thought it didn’t need to do much; its traditional voters had no choice but to back it. That only showed its disconnect with the new generation of voters, who, never having known any other cause, respond enthusiastically to any appeal to their identity. Despite knowing that they were actually helping the BJP win, young Dalits flocked to Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in Maharashtra, which fielded candidates from hitherto neglected castes and highlighted their caste identity. The VBA was instrumental in the defeat of eight Congress-NCP candidates, including stalwarts such as Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan—the former CM, considered the king of Nanded, who had overcome the Modi wave in 2014.
The Congress gave just one ticket to a Muslim in Maharashtra, but the only Muslim who won from the state was an AIMIM MLA from Aurangabad, backed by the VBA. Even older Muslims of the city this time decided to choose political representation over “secularism”.Those who realised this was short sighted and voted for the Congress’ lacklustre candidate, did so with extreme reluctance. Farmers who said the Congress cared more for them than did Narendra Modi wondered where the party was on the ground.
The defeat of the Congress, which once represented all caste and religious identities, and stood for secularism at least in principle, is a brutal lesson for those who want to defeat the BJP and all that it stands for. And that lesson is: Elections are not the way to do so. Working among the people is the only answer.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai