Secularism is dead. The epitaph of pseudo-secularism has been written in the palimpsest of Indian politics. The atavistic war cry ‘Long live pluralism’ and ‘Nationalist Hindutva’ resounded in the Gujarat verdict with the message that elections can’t be won by Muslim bashing or Muslim appeasement alone. Nor can political parties triumph by engaging in competitive religiosity.
During one of the filthiest and abusive poll battles ever, none of the main national parties indulged in the excessive use of communal ammunition.
Their attacks were confined to bashing Pakistan and its alleged Indian allies. The BJP stuck to its original script of not fielding Muslim candidates while the Congress put up just six, one less than in 2012. Half of them made it to the Assembly. With the worship of Hindu gods, the Congress now claims it has redefined itself as the new avatar of genuine secularism.
Gujarat is traditionally BJP’s productive laboratory to test its Hindutva formula. It has won the state six times using a combination of Hindutva and Vikas. This time, however, a new mantra could be heard in Gujarat’s Kurukshetra. For the first time since independence, the Congress led by its new president Rahul Gandhi refrained from invoking secularism in chasing the mandate.
Unlike previous elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012 when Sonia Gandhi and her party fought the BJP and Narendra Modi by projecting them as vicious threats to India’s pluralistic character and secularism, the Congress’s 2017 Assembly election effort was to reclaim its long lost Hindu base.
In contrast to Modi’s consistent principle of avoiding mosque visits and donning skull caps, Rahul broke Congress tradition by making highly publicised visits to 27 temples and avoiding the mosques that fell on his poll path, thereby displaying his newfound Hindu credentials. Not even once did his party and its candidates lament about the 2002 Gujarat riots and the massacre of over 800 Muslims. Nor did it deploy national Muslim leaders for campaigning even in Muslim dominated constituencies. Surprisingly, Rahul, who never misses an opportunity to attack the RSS, abjured targeting it this time at public meetings.
A seat wise analysis of the results reveals that the politics of pious populism paid it rich dividends. Thanks to Rahul’s temple hopping, 28 seats the Congress won out of its yield of 77 were from the Mandir belt. Moreover, ten of the 11 extra seats it added to its 2012 tally lay on Rahul’s temple run and were wrested from the BJP.
The Congress dumped its pro-minority narrative because it was confident the Muslims would vote for the Hand anyway.
Both parties have also increased their popular vote share since 2012. However, the BJP’s fell massively by 11 percent; lower than what it polled during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It must be relieved though to learn that its historical index of the Muslim vote percentage has remained almost intact. A powerful combo of the charismatic Modi and master strategist Amit Shah enabled the party to decisively beat Rahul’s anti-incumbency torque.
Yet the BJP failed to win a single seat in half a dozen districts.
A design behind the desire is apparent in Rahul Gandhi’s transformation into Pandit Rahul. Congress spinmeisters have learnt from the national psephological behaviour of Muslim voters that they haven’t moved away much from the non-BJP parties in the last 25 years.
In many states like Assam, Kerala and others, a substantial majority of minority voters have traditionally voted against the ruling party. It was the consolidation of non-Muslim votes which generated massive electoral gains for the BJP and its iconic mascot Narendra Modi. Congress leaders have realised that an over-emphasis of the secular agenda has run its course and its electoral returns were diminishing fast.
Even other parties now refrain from habitually lambasting the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva motif. Moreover, they have been vocally approving of a legal ban on Triple Talaq, but have kept schtum on the BJP’s push to expedite the construction of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya even as the judiciary forced the Congress to review its ideological stance. The GOP’s epiphany is that its political market share can be improved only by getting its liberal Hindu vote bank back. The Congress has always been the favourite of intermediary castes, Dalits and tribals who have been practising Hindus for years. In the urban areas, it had enjoyed the substantial support of middle class Hindus until the BJP adopted the mandir cause in the late eighties.
The Congress retaliated with a powerful pro-Islam narrative by reversing the Shah Banu verdict of the Supreme Court through legislation and by pushing job reservation for Muslims.
In the post Modi era, the political discourse has undergone significant changes not just in India but all over the world. The epidemic of Islamic terror has pushed the liberals into quarantine.
The rise of the ultra right Donald Trump has made it arduous for left wing leaders to espouse the concept of inclusive democracy fully. Even in most of the world’s 49 Muslim majority countries, including conservative Saudi Arabia, rulers have been forced to open up their societies and allow freedom of expression and women’s empowerment. They have also largely stopped funding various terror outfits.
More than indigenous fighters, cross border terrorism is responsible for the continuing J&K mess. The dismal ethos of the Kashmir conflict is not primarily a confrontation between Muslims and Hindus but is a war between Pakistan funded terrorists and Indian forces.
Hence, it can be safely assumed that the current global outlook towards terror spilled over to the Gujarat battle of ballots. The poll rhetoric started with development but degenerated into forcing the peoples’ choice between Hindu Hriday Samrat Modi and Rahul, the new practising Hindu.
It seems clear that the ideological energy of political parties fighting the 2019 national elections would not be powered by a desire for an alternative model of governance but by wooing the soul of Hindu India.
In 2019, voters would be asked to decide between Modi’s Model of Hindutva and Raga’s Temple Template instead of supporting a better economic mantra for New India.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla