Addressing the Indian Youth Congress convention with ‘Behtar Bharat Ki Buniyaad‘ (Foundations of a Better India) as its theme in Bengaluru recently, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi asserted that the country was witnessing political contestation between two ideologies.
“On one side is the ideology of the RSS and BJP and on the other is the ideology of the Congress. There are many parties, there are parties in the Opposition… but the ideological fight that is on in the country… is between the ideologies of the RSS-BJP and that of the Congress,” he said. It is his unambiguous view that the Congress is the primary proponent of the mother of anti-Hindutva ideologies.
Coming shortly after the party’s over-enthusiasm in singly moving the non-confidence motion in Lok Sabha and not providing MPs from other parties a chance to append their signatures to it, Gandhi’s speech added to the heartburn among other constituents of the INDIA alliance on the Congress projecting itself as the primary mover against the BJP and the Narendra Modi government.
On the no-confidence motion, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, pleaded guilty to the ‘mistake’ saying this could have easily been avoided had party leaders not acted with undue urgency.
Possibly, Congress leaders will convey to other partners that Rahul Gandhi’s speech via a video link should not be viewed as another affront because he was addressing the party’s youth wing from an intra-organisation platform. The occasion thereby, justified mentioning the Congress party in the singular when shoring up confidence of the cadre in its ideology, over which the party has vacillated for long.
Gandhi’s speech however, provides the opportunity to examine another question whose answer will become increasingly important as the 2024 Lok Sabha polls nears – how much, or to what extent, should the Opposition’s campaign against the BJP-Modi combine be ideological, and how much of it should remain focused on livelihood and/or governance issues?
Related to this is a spin-off – won’t targeting the BJP on the basis of its ‘divisive’ ideology enable the party to enlist its core Hindutva-supporting electoral constituency more solidly behind it, by polarising voters on the basis of religious identity?
Some weeks ago, in a conversation with Christophe Jaffrelot, the noted French scholar who has tracked the rise of Hindu nationalistic politics for more than three and half decades, this writer put up the same question.
Initially, he veered around to the view that it could be decided on a situation-to-situation basis, before amending his thoughts to say that if the Opposition had to “choose a single issue”, it would “make more sense to focus on socio-economic (issues) than identity politics.”
Quite clearly, Rahul Gandhi does not hold this view because from when he embarked on the Bharat Jodo Yatra last September, he has been forthright in his attacks on Hindutva politics although being strident on other issues too, like on the government’s handling of Manipur violence.
At times he goes overboard, as in the strident dig at Hindu nationalistic icon Vinayak “Veer” Savarkar when his yatra was crossing Maharashtra. This enables the BJP to create indignation and harness its benefits.
Within the Congress many fear, like Jaffrelot’s apprehension, that this approach will enable Modi to prise open the Hindu-Muslim fault line to its benefit. The counter to this, of course, is that a soft-Hindutva approach never benefited the Congress.
Critics of ‘middle-of-the-road’ politics, or what academics label as ‘pragmatic communalism’ of the Congress, contend that yielding to political use of religion never worked. This helped neither in the late 1980s – when Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to Muslim fundamentalists by annulling the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano verdict while assuaging Hindu sentiments by facilitating the opening of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi shrine to Hindu devotees – nor fetched the Congress additional votes in 2017 in Gujarat when Rahul Gandhi visited temples and party colleagues declared him a janeu (sacred thread) donning Hindu and announced his gotra (sect).
It is tough to predict which strategy is going to be more beneficial – seeking votes highlighting livelihood and social security slippages in governance, or identity politics. In all likelihood, the same tactics cannot be uniformly successful. For instance, in Karnataka, the promise to proscribe Bajrang Dal may not have caused as much damage as initially feared, but in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress units are not shying from harnessing Hindu symbolism.
Just as many in the Opposition fear that the Rahul Gandhi ‘line’ plays into the hands of BJP-Modi, there is an apprehension on the other side that with the compulsive denigration of the INDIA parties, the ruling party is playing into the hands of the Opposition.
This is worrying because inserting various terrorist organisations into the political discourse will only underscore the failure of the government to eliminate such threats despite being in office for a decade. Furthermore, Modi knows that repeated mention of the acronym, of which he is a past master, will give it greater currency.
Modi in the past often said negative publicity too is ‘good’ publicity because it forces people to think that the incessant disparagement of anyone or any party indicates that they must have done ‘something good’ to earn such vilification. Currently, Modi’s campaign against his adversaries is stuck in the old groove – dynastic politics, corruption, policy paralysis of the UPA, the absence of a leader and so on.
Besides going beyond serving reminders of nightmares of yore to a generation that has no memory of that period, the ruling party too has to provide a more convincing theory on the revival of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) despite keeping it alive only in name since 2019. For a wide variety of reasons, no incumbent for a decade is in an enviable position in the run-up to polls. This handicap can be offset only by an overarching nationwide narrative as in 2019 and 2014 which is conspicuous by its absence at the moment.
The BJP, however, does not face the problem that the Congress confronts – the sense of other INDIA members being dwarfed by the grand old party. No NDA constituent has the ambition of being the dominant partner but many Opposition leaders want the pole position within the grouping.
All INDIA constituents face a dilemma that practitioners of coalition politics have to confront – how much of space should their ‘own’ leaders give to “my/our party” and how much to yield to the collective? How much of their self-identity should be preserved and how much can be submerged into the collective?
Striking the right balance that furthers individual ambition without hampering the collective’s prospects is always a challenge for coalitions. It is as vexing a problem as thrashing out a non-confrontational seat-sharing formula.
The Congress has made a beginning with Mallikarjun Kharge’s declaration that the party is not interested in the prime minister’s post. However, as it happens so often, alliances are often derailed despite good starts. This is especially true when partners vie for the same social base or when they are rivals in a few states or sub-regions as is the case with some INDA parties.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. He has also written ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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