In an attempt to counter the ascendancy of ‘nationalism’ and ‘Hindutva’ in public discourse coinciding with the BJP coming to power in 2014, there has been a gradual but marked shift in the Congress strategy that many have dubbed as ‘soft Hindutva’.
While an attempt by the Congress to align with the liberal and pluralistic tradition of Hinduism has been visible for the past four years, it has assumed an increasingly sharper pitch over the past one-and-a-half years in the build-up to some crucial Assembly elections and now the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
Following the 2014 poll debacle, a view emerged that the grand old party suffered electoral losses due to a perception created by the BJP that it practised Muslim appeasement. The Congress felt the propaganda had to be countered, and paying back the saffron party in the same coin seemed to be a workable idea. Subsequently, one saw Congress president Rahul Gandhi flaunting his Hindu credentials, especially in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Gujarat (December 2017), Karnataka (May 2018), Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (November-December 2018).
Political analysts agree that the Congress has adopted a policy ‘soft Hindutva’ in order to blunt the BJP’s charge of Muslim appeasement.
“Whether the Congress has done it consciously or not, is a question that needs to be answered. The best counter to the BJP is to talk in their language and the Congress seems to be just doing that,” said Sudha Pai, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Sources said the change in Congress strategy was evident from Rahul’s visit to Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya in November 2016, ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, though he avoided the make-shift temple at the disputed site of Ram Lal’s birthplace.
Subsequently, the Gujarat and Karnataka poll campaigns saw Rahul’s widely publicised temple-hopping spree. In the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, the party’s manifesto raised eyebrows as it promised goshala (cow shelters) in all 23,000 gram panchayats, constructing Ram Van Gaman Path (the route taken by Lord Ram during his 14-year exile) from Chitrakoot to Bundelkhand and Mahakoshal regions, starting commercial production of gomutra (cow urine), and setting up of a spirituality department — measures that have been key part of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. In Rajasthan, the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government that came to power recently announced rewards for civilians who take care of the stray cows.
Rahul has personally steered this strategic shift towards soft Hindutva. In January last year, during a trip to the family bastions Amethi and Rae Bareli in UP, he made it a point to visit a famous Hanuman temple in Rae Bareli and stopped and offered prayers at every single Lord Shiva temple en route. While he declared himself to be a Shiv Bhakt, his party gave up its shyness and proudly declared that Rahul was actually a janeudhari (sacred thread-wearing) Brahmin. The Congress president even trekked to Kailash Mansarovar in September last year. There are murmurs that he may visit the ongoing Ardh Kumbh at Prayagraj in UP, where the Congress Seva Dal has set up a huge camp.
Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said the Congress was forced to tweak its strategy and adopt soft-Hindutva to counter the BJP. “By doing this, they have taken away BJP’s trump card. Now, the BJP cannot trash the party as one which appeases Muslims,” he said. “It is a forced adaption. Every party has to stick to the prominent social fabric. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was socialism, then it became secularism. Over the past decade, the fabric has been nationalism.”
Congress leaders deny any suggestion related to soft-Hindutva and argue that Rahul has been visiting places of worship of different religions, but the temple visits get noticed as the BJP preferred to keep the communal pot boiling.
But at the same time, Congress insiders, in an indirect admission to soft Hindutva, claim the BJP has been rattled by the tweak in the party’s strategy. “The BJP’s focus on cow protection and Ayodhya temple months ahead of the Lok Sabha polls indicate they want to make these election issues. The saffron party injected a false sense of nationalism in the country’s political discourse and countering it is the main challenge for the grand old party,” said an AICC functionary.
That this is not an ideological shift but a strategic position aimed at reaping electoral benefits is clear from the fact that the Congress is trying to present itself as a champion of cow protection in the heartland states of UP, MP and Rajasthan, but not in tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. “If Rahulji is visiting temples what’s wrong in that? He visits other religious places also as part of sarva dharma sambhav,” Ramesh Varlyani, Chhattisgarh Congress spokesperson, said.
In Jharkhand, which has seen several lynching incidents over alleged cow slaughter, the party claims an economic angle to cow protection agenda. “Hindutva has never been an agenda in Jharkhand. We will stick to the economic agenda for contesting elections, but there should not be any doubt that gau hatya (cow slaughter) is banned in the country,” former MP from Ranchi and former Union minister Subodh Kant Sahay said. “For the BJP religion is a strategy, for us a commitment,” he claimed.
Post the wins, detailed cow protection policies are in the works in Congress ruled Rajasthan and MP to convey the right message to the voters ahead of the national polls. However, in BJP ruled UP the Congress strategy is to attack the state government for harassing people in the name of cow protection. “They prefer cows to human life. Even after 20 months of being in power, the Yogi Adityanath government has failed to bring a concrete policy for cow protection in the state,” UP Congress spokesperson Anshu Awasthi said.
Summing up, Jai Mrug of Voter Mood Research maintained that the Congress was left with no other option but to tilt towards soft Hindutva. “The party stood the risk of becoming irrelevant. It had to shift its strategy to target masses of the country. Also, with new alliances cropping up in different parts of the country, it became all the more important for them to change plans and adopt a new strategy,” he said.
(With inputs from Namita Bajpai in Lucknow, Ejaz Kaiser in Raipur, Mukesh Ranjan in Ranchi, Anurag Singh in Bhopal and Rajesh Asnani in Jaipur)