NEW DELHI -- Indira Gandhi at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, Indira Gandhi visiting Pitambara Peeth in Datia, Madhya Pradesh — these were the iconic images a senior Congressman in Delhi wistfully recalled when considering the party's quest to remain relevant to a citizenry that, many fear, is almost irrevocably polarised along religious lines.
"Indira Gandhi was hardcore Hindu, who, never left room for doubting her secular credentials," the Congressman said.
As the 2019 general elections grow ever closer, the Congress — a party long accustomed to being everything to all people — is anxious over the party's inability to respond to the Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) strategy of portraying the Congress as "anti-Hindu" and "pro-Muslim" at a time of resurgent right-wing Hindu nationalism.
Conversations with half a dozen senior party members reveal a leadership divided on how best to respond to communalism, with one leader saying the party was caught unawares by how far hate-mongering had resonated with the electorate. Almost all sought anonymity to discuss a subject that — most agreed — would critically shape the Congress's 2019 campaign.
"We need a staunch practicing Hindu who is equally tolerant of Muslims," said a Congress state leader. "We need a devout Hindu to say Hinduism does not teach you to kill Muslims."
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The Congressman believes the Congress once had "devout" Hindu leaders, from Sardar Patel to former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose Hindu credentials the Hindu right would have never dared question.
The Congress's confusion is best personified by an internal debate over just how "Hindu," a Hindu Rahul Gandhi should be in his public utterances and appearances. Gandhi must appear sufficiently Hindu without appearing to copy the BJP, party workers lament, but also sufficiently secular, without appearing to be "pro-Muslim."
Congress Party's social media chief Divya Spandana summarized the dilemma in one line: "If he goes to a mosque, he is pro-Muslim. If he goes to a temple, he is trying to be Hindu."
Even the example of Gandhi's grandmother, Indira, offers forked lessons.
While the senior Delhi congressman quoted above, felt Gandhi should follow Indira's lead in embodying an unapologetic Hindu persona; the state leader said Indira was not a devout Hindu but offered a fresh and compelling narrative.
"Indira Gandhi made the public appearances, but she was never a devout Hindu like Lal Bahadur Shastri," the state leader said. "She was side-lined even within the Congress until she hit upon gareebi hatao."
We need a staunch practicing Hindu who is equally tolerant of Muslims," said a Congress state leader. We need a devout Hindu to say Hinduism does not teach you to kill Muslims.
Anti-Modi but not anti-Hindu
The dialectic of "us versus them" has animated the strongest political narratives in the past four decades: Indira Gandhi pitted the "haves" against the "have-nots", Kanshi Ram sought to juxtapose a broad Dalit-Bahujan identity against the Brahmanical discourse prevalent at the time, while L.K. Advani laid the groundwork for the pan-Hindu aggrieved majority that the BJP of Modi and Amit Shah leveraged with great success.
A section of the Congress believes that Gandhi and the party should hit upon a consistent, non-religious, narrative for the upcoming polls even as they appeared unsure what that narrative should be.
"At the age of 48, Rahul Gandhi will find it very hard to project himself to be a devout Hindu," said the Congress state leader. "The problem is that Congress does not have an alternative narrative."
Asked if the failure of the Modi government to deliver jobs could be a narrative for the 2019 election, the leader said, "Elections in India are not fought on development. Whether 2019 is fought on religion, or whether caste trumps religion, remains to be seen."
The upcoming state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are likely to offer some clues to what an anti-Modi narrative, without religious overtones, could look like.
All three states have small Muslim populations below 10%, and the incumbent BJP governments appear unpopular with their constituents in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
"Religion is not likely to play a big role and the BJP is on a sticky wicket," the Congressman said. "It can give a boost to get Modi out, which Congress can spearhead."
Whether 2019 is fought on religion, or whether caste trumps religion, remains to be seen.
Hindus Don't Love Muslims
The BJP's success, Congress workers said, had alerted them to a subterranean undercurrent of religious friction.
"We realized that we had a very big problem. Hindus do not love Muslims. They don't care if Muslims are killed. The anti-Muslim feeling was always there," said the state Congress leader. "The Congress kept it under the carpet for so long but the BJP is exploiting the basic instinct of Hindus."
In Gujarat, Gandhi made it a point to visit Hindu temples. Congress insiders told HuffPost India that a conscious decision was made for him to avoid visiting mosques.
The insider said that Gandhi relented to Congress leaders in Gujarat, but he was not happy with this decision. "It is debatable whether there was any electoral benefit in Gujarat. We did not do so well in Muslim-dominated seats," the insider said.
In Karnataka, where the party displayed a surprising will for power, Gandhi visited both temples and mosques, and the party clung on to power in a coalition.
We realized that we had a very big problem. Hindus do not love Muslims. They don't care if Muslims are killed.
Hindutva versus Hinduism
Last week, while speaking in Parliament, Gandhi seemed to have found his voice by drawing a distinction between Hinduism, the religion, and Hindutva — the BJP's political project.
"You may think, I have a lot of hatred for the BJP and PM Modi. But the truth is I am grateful to them," he said in the Lok Sabha. "The BJP, the RSS and the PM Modi helped me understand what it means to be with the Congress, what it means to be an Indian, what it means to be a Hindu and a Shiv bhakt."
A few days later, Rahul Gandhi came out strongly against the latest lynching in Alwar. It was the strongest condemnation from the Congress president since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015.
"Policemen in Alwar took 3 hrs to get a dying Rakbar Khan, the victim of a lynch mob, to a hospital just 6 KM away. Why? They took a tea-break enroute. This is Modi's brutal "New India" where humanity is replaced with hatred and people are crushed and left to die," he wrote.
Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha, said, "There is a fundamental difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. We are going to make this a core of our campaign."
In the run up to the 2019 election, Jha believes the BJP will intensify religious polarization, while its "propaganda machine" makes the Congress appear to be an anti-Hindu party.
"The Congress will take it head on," he said.
Yet this nuance, analysts believe, will be lost in the hurly-burly of campaigning.
Ashutosh Misra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, said that Hinduism versus Hindutva narrative reeked of "intellectual smugness," and it would have no impact on electorate.
"You need extraordinary emotional and intellectual capacity to deliver this kind of message," Misra said. "The top leadership of the Congress does not have a bond with the public."
You need extraordinary emotional and intellectual capacity to deliver this kind of message.
A Congress leader, based in a southern state, said the Congress was up against not just the BJP, but also its ideological parents, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its legions of workers.
"It will be difficult to convey our message (Hindutva versus Hinduism). We are a mass-based party. They are a cadre-based party. There are so many organizations linked to the RSS, They have workers who are visiting villages every day. We cannot compete with that," he said.
What is lost in nuance, Congress leaders feel, could be made up for in consistent messaging. "There was confusion for months, around the time when there was talk of the Congress president being a janeu-dhari Hindu," said the Delhi-based Congressman, referring to when Randeep Surjewala, a party spokesperson emphasized Gandhi's Brahmin caste position. "It has done some damage, but we are responding."
The Congressman from the southern state, said, "It is not just about winning the next election. We have to shape a message for the future as well."
Congress leader Pawan Khera, said, "The politics of hate comes with an expiry date."
Jha, the Congress spokesperson, credits Gandhi for rolling out the Hindutva versus Hinduism narrative. "He is the one who is heading the party. You will see him lead the charge."
There are some within the Congress who believe Gandhi was helping himself by conferring with veteran political leaders like Ashok Gehlot — "Real political types," as the Delhi-based Congressman put it — compared to his previous confidantes who have little political experience.
The politics of hate comes with an expiry date.
Role of the media
Almost all the Congress leaders and officials that HuffPost India spoke to said the mainstream media had a role in dissemination of the BJP's polarizing narrative.
Congress' social media chief, Spandana, said that TV channels had live streamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech in Jaipur, where he said that Gandhi had identified the Congress as a "pro-Muslim party."
"Modi used that platform and everyone relayed it live, but the last four days did not show what Mr. Gandhi said or what his reaction was," she said in an interview, last week. "It's just the way the news is consumed, the way the headlines are given for TRPs."
Spandana, who is credited for raising Congress' social media profile, noted that it was difficult to compete with the BJP, which had far more resources to convey its message, and by its very nature, it went far.
"Every time, they drag us to a conversation about Hindu-Muslim, religion, we should talk about jobs. Don't get dragged into that conversation. But unfortunately, we sometimes fall into their trap. No matter what you say, you are losing that battle. Just go for jobs, GST, demonetization, all of that," she said.
Read Divya Spandana's full interview with HuffPost India here.
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