Congress has ruinous plan to remake its ‘anti-Hindu’ image

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New Delhi: After much huffing and puffing, the Congress has finally ordered some sort of a post-mortem into its general election debacle. But guess what its focus will be ? To find out whether it lost because it is perceived as “anti-Hindu” and “pro-minorities” (read “pro-Muslim”).

At a “brainstorming” meeting Rahul Gandhi had with AICC general secretaries recently to discuss the “roadmap’’ for the party’s revival, it was decided to seek out Hindu voters and ask them how they view its attitude towards them. And if they think it is “anti-Hindu”, is that the reason why they rejected it last May swayed by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist claims.

Apparently this was the only key decision taken at the high-level meeting demonstrating just how important the party believes this issue is. A report in The Times of India suggested that there was, in fact, already a settled view at the highest level of the organisation that its “debilitating” defeat was a “backlash against Congress’s pro-minority stance’’. And it was keen to “shed this handicap”.

“Following the Congress’s decimation (in the general elections), party veteran and former defence minister AK Antony warned that the party needed to correct the perception about its minority bias that was hurting the party’s chances,’’ it said quoting sources as saying that there was a “strong desire’’ to “shatter” such a perception.

On the face of it, the move would seem unexceptionable. Who can object to a party in the throes of an existential crisis wanting to assess public opinion in order to improve itself?

But take note of the topic the Congress has chosen for this exercise. It has no interest in finding out what people think of its governance skills or addressing questions about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership style, or fighting the perception that its government was soft on corruption. Instead it is consumed by fear of being seen as pro-minorities and by extension “anti-Hindu”: a polarising, reductionist logic made fashionable by the BJP’s unprecedented triumph on the back of a massive consolidation of Hindu vote in its favour and the “them -versus-us’’ national political discourse that has followed in its wake.

India’s political culture has always been somewhat notorious for promoting sectional constituencies based on religion and caste. But after Narendra Modi’s victory, a new element has been added to the mix—namely, the importance of the Hindu vote and the race to the bottom to capture it. It is this that is driving the Congress urge to “shed’’ the “handicap’’ of being seen as “pro-minorities’’.

The Congress move is symptomatic of the growing lumpenisation of national politics and a steadily shrinking agenda in which winning elections alone matters. Even as the wider Indian society is becoming more democratic and open, the nation’s polity is being increasingly driven by forces and instincts that best thrive in a polarised setting. For example, the 2014 general election might have been ostensibly fought on development but we all know that the campaign was marked by a none-too-subtle divisive theme. And the current climate, characterised by crude and openly inflammatory sentiments (“Ramzaade, Haramzaade; ghar wapsi et al) , is a direct fall-out of that.

Once upon a time, a pro-minorities bias was regarded as a hallmark of civilised political behaviour akin to being pro-blacks or anti-racist in western societies. In the prevailing environment, however, with its limited view of society—a la America’s Tea Party movement– being supportive of “them” minorities is seen as a hindrance to be overcome.

So, India’s “Grand Old Party” seems all too ready to abandon any pretensions of inclusiveness for it to be seen as “pro-Hindu’’ so that it can fit into the new political order. And it is not just the Congress. The intellectual vacuity that afflicts this new order and its narrow concerns is evident across the political spectrum, including the famously cerebral Left.

Looking around, it is hard to escape the sense that the entire national political arena has become a vast ideological wasteland fit to grow only short-term vote-winning tactics. There are echoes of a type of politics that relies heavily on what, in the West, is mocked as “dog whistle” approach where a party–usually on the Right–aims to flourish by mobilising opinion around one or two emotive areas calculated to appeal to its core supporters.

In Britain, the Conservatives like to focus on immigration portraying “too many” migrants as a threat to the values and culture of native white Britons. Labour Party is then presented as “pro-immigrants”, and thus “anti” the “hard working” whites whose jobs migrants allegedly steal. Now, the Labour has also learned the trick and is busy stealing more and more of the Conservatives’ clothes. Substitute the BJP for the Conservatives and Labour for the Congress –and you get the picture. Dog whistle politics, thin on ideas or vision and big on hit-and-run tactics, has arrived in India.

But what is happening in India is likely to prove more threatening because it isn’t just about a harmless policy such as the level of immigration or whether Britain should stay on in the European Union or leave it. Here, it is about the very sensitive Hindu-Muslim relations which, let’s remember, led to the partition of the country not so long ago, as the CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury pointed out while accusing the BJP and TMC of “communalising’’ the atmosphere in West Bengal .

Coming back to the Congress, the question is: what if its survey shows that, yes, some people do accuse it of anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim bias? What will it do? Don saffron and start speaking the language of Hindutva? And, hey presto, it will be back in voters’ affections? Has the party become so ideologically bankrupt that it has no qualms trading its traditionally pluralist idea of India for a Hindutva-style script ?

The BJP may have its own idea of India– and it is too well-known to bear repetition here– but must a self-avowedly secular/all-embracing party (the famous “banyan tree” under which everyone irrespective of caste, creed or religion was supposed to feel at home ) imitate it? Is this what Indian politics has come to?

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