15 Feb 2019 21:09 IST

The Congress party’s shades of Saffron

‘Secularism’ is today absent from the political lexicon; even the Congress seems loath to mention it

In recent times the Congress party’s shift to the right has been commented upon extensively. It has been described as ‘Soft Hindutva’, ‘Saffron Congress’ and other interesting terms. Needless to say, the Congress’ shade of Saffron gets just a little darker during election times.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping spree during the Gujarat visit and the recent Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections elicited much media attention. So did his visit to Mansarovar last year and his self-professed devotion to Lord Shiva. In fact, the Congress Manifesto for the recent Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections would have made the BJP either proud or jealous. The Congress promised to build gaushalas (cow shelter) in every panchayat, develop the ‘Ram Path Gaman’ — the route taken by Lord Rama during his exile — and even ensure commercial production of cow urine (gaumutra).

But the Kamalnath government’s invoking of National Security Act against five persons’ alleged violation of cow protection laws firmly proves that the Congress’s lurch to the right is not just a pre-election ritual. The NSA provides for imprisonment of up to one year through an executive order without trial or bail. This is perhaps the first time that such a draconian law is being used against alleged violation of cow protection laws, something even the BJP State governments have not invoked so far.

Respecting people’s wishes

This is not the first time the Congress and the BJP have been on the same page. In the recent protests against allowing women between the ages of 10 and 50 into Sabarimala, in Kerala, both the BJP and the Congress had opposed the Supreme Court’s decision. This made the CPI(M) derisively refer to the Congress as the BJP’s ‘B team’.

Even a seasoned politician like Shashi Tharoor said that the people’s faith and wishes must not be trampled on. Rahul Gandhi, despite initially supporting the Supreme Court decision, quickly backtracked and supported the protests against it, ostensibly under pressure from the Kerala Congress unit.

The Congress party’s commitment towards secularism has always been suspect. In the 1980s, it was the Rajiv Gandhi government that allowed the ‘Shilanyas’ to be performed at the disputed Babri Masjid site despite court orders to maintain the status quo. This was a desperate attempt by the then Congress government to counter the onslaught of the BJP-VHP’s Ram Mandir movement. Under severe pressure over the Bofors issue and with the 1989 general elections looming, the Rajiv Gandhi government cravenly bowed down to Hindu majoritarian demands.

Conflicting ideologies

In 1992, the Narasimha Rao government’s inability, or some would say reluctance, to protect the Babri Masjid from being demolished came in for severe criticism from all sections of society. Rao’s defenders would say that he was let down by the BJP and other leaders of the Hindu Right, who had promised that the masjid would not be touched.

But long before that, even during the national movement in the 1920s the Congress Party was like an umbrella that held together people adhering to various, and sometimes conflicting, ideologies. Hindu Mahasabha leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai were also leading lights in the Congress Party. The party also had its ‘left’ faction with Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose leading the way. During the 1930s it saw an intense struggle for control between the conservative and radical factions of the party, with Gandhiji often playing the role of mediator.

After Independence, in the 1950s, it was a series of Congress governments in the northern States that brought in laws for cow protection. As commentator Swapan Dasgupta remarked in a recent column, Nehru was often riled by the ‘RSS mentality’ of some Congress Chief Ministers.

Whither secularism?

Despite the compromises made in favour of Hindu majoritarianism in the past, the Congress party, at least overtly, adhered to the principle of secularism, which ironically opened it up to charges of ‘minority appeasement’.

Of course, the word secularism meant different things to different people and, over time, ended up conveying a myriad meanings. In the Indian context secularism came to mean equal treatment of all religions under the law. The word secularism today seems to have completely vanished from the Indian political lexicon. The Congress seems to be even embarrassed to mention it.

So, is the MP government’s recent move mere posturing for Hindu votes during an election season or does it ominously point towards a covert abandoning of the principles of secularism? This is a question that needs to be pondered over, not just by intellectuals but also by the electorate at large.