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Hindutva versus secularism

Rahul Gandhi’s assumption of the command of the Indian National Congress, which until a few years ago held sway in the world’s largest democracy, was always in the bag. It was only a matter of time that Sonia Gandhi would step down as party president. Amid all the cultural and economic changes taking place in India, the Congress has held fast to its tradition of being led by a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Old habits die hard.

Rahul has taken over the reins of the Congress at a time when it is giving way to the BJP. This makes his case remarkably different from that of his father and grandmother. When each of them had assumed the leadership of the party, they had no credible opposition to worry about.

It was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who set the stage for dynastic politics when he ensured the transfer of the mantle of leadership to his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1959 without much ado. Given its rich history, there was no dearth of seasoned politicians in the Congress. But Nehru, who otherwise was well stepped in the traditions of Western democracy, like an ordinary Indian wished to promote his own family.

From party leadership, the next big step for Indira was to become prime minister in 1966. She retained the country’s most powerful office till 1977, when the Congress tasted its first defeat on the electoral front in 30 years. However, three years later she was back in the saddle with a thumping majority, as the ruling Janata Party fell apart.

When Indira was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh guards, the logical choice for her successor was her only surviving son Rajiv Gandhi. His younger brother Sanjay Gandhi, who had been groomed to be the next party leader, had died in an air crash before his mother’s death. Predictably, Rajiv led his party to a landslide in the ensuing elections.

The Congress emerged as the single largest party in the 1989 elections; however, it fell short of achieving a simple majority. Rajiv preferred to sit in the opposition believing that, as in the past (1977-80), the opposition alliance would collapse forcing snap polls, which would bring the Congress back to power. And that is what happened. But as fate would have it, Rajiv was assassinated during the 1991 election campaign. The Congress formed government, having narrowly won the polls, with seasoned politician Narasimha Rao as prime minister; he had earlier been elected as party head. The Congress government completed its term but lost the 1996 parliamentary polls, giving the Hindu nationalist BJP its first electoral triumph and veteran politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee his first stint as prime minister.

The trouncing of the Congress in the 1998 elections, its first back-to-back electoral defeat, made the party leadership ponder what went wrong. What they discovered was that, unlike in the past, the Congress was not led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This brought Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, to the helm. Since her husband’s death, she had stayed away from active politics. Her being Italian was one of the reasons for her recalcitrance.

The solution worked as the Congress returned to power in the 2004 elections and remained in the saddle for ten years. Although Manmohan Singh headed the government, it is widely believed that Sonia Gandhi called the shots.

The Congress’ performance hit rock bottom in the 2014 elections when it won merely 44 seats in a 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. The overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for the BJP and its new leader Narendra Modi, the man widely seen to be behind the 2002 carnage of Muslims in the Gujarat communal riots. Subsequently, the BJP has taken several states including the nation’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh (UP), which it won earlier this year. Very recently, the BJP has won legislative assembly elections in Gujarat – although with a reduced margin of victory.

Rahul Gandhi’s first big challenge will be the next national elections, due in 2019. The current wave of success coupled with his aggressive style of politics may make Modi go for early polls. However, snap or on-time elections are beside the point. The real question is how effectively Rahul can take on Modi. The state of the economy may provide an answer. But more than the economy, culture will hold the key.

India is officially a secular state – and logically so. The Indian National Congress (INC) had opposed the creation of Pakistan on the ground that the partition of a multiethnic India on the basis of religion would be unwarranted. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was rounded on by the advocates of a united India for what they called injecting religion into politics.

The Congress has remained committed to secularism. In the first three decades of independence, there was little credible opposition to the Congress – and by implication there was little danger to secularism as a matter of state policy. The situation changed with the rise of the BJP. As Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it, the BJP’s roots can be traced to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the National Volunteers Corps, and its political arm, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) or the Indian People’s Association. The BJS was wedded to rebuilding India into a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values or Hindutva. Formally set up in 1980, the BJP inherited the BJS mission.

Since its inception, the BJP has been fiercely opposed to secularism. In the early 1990s, the party supported the demand for pulling down the historic Babri Mosque at Ayodhya and building a temple in its place. It is widely alleged that the people who razed the mosque in December 1992 were associated with the BJP. In the ensuing parliamentary elections (1996), the BJP emerged as the single largest party and formed its first government under Vajpayee.

Over the years, two dominant trends can be discerned in the Indian polity. One, the fortunes of the Congress have raked down and those of the BJP have ratcheted up. Two, secularism has weakened and Hindu nationalism has gained strength. In the last national elections, both those trends combined to bring about the resounding electoral victory of the BJP and the worst ever defeat of the Congress.

By supporting Modi, who unlike Vajpayee does not represent the moderate face of the BJP, in 2014 and later in state elections – on most occasions by an overwhelming majority – the Indian electorate sent out the message that Hindu nationalism is far more important than secularism. Logically, under Modi, Hindu nationalism has thrived at the expense of secularism. He has to repay his debt to the electorate. Picking Yogi Adityanath, a zealous exponent of Hindutva, to head the UP government was one of the ways to work off the debt.

On economic policy, there is not much to choose between the Congress and the BJP. Both parties favour a liberal economy. In fact, it was the Congress government that in the early 1990s set in motion reforms to transition from a state-controlled to a market economy. In many ways, the economic policies of Modi are a continuation of those of Manmohan Singh.

Modi and the BJP have from time to time attacked – and for good reason – the Congress for being an exponent of dynastic politics. In principle, dynastic politics – a remnant of absolute monarchy – is not good for democracy. In India this brand of politics is not the issue. The real issue is the fight between Hindutva and secularism.

Hussain H Zaidi, "Hindutva versus secularism," The news. 2017-12-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political leadership , Economic change , Cultural change , National Congress , Veteran politicians , Federal government , National elections , Secular state , State policy , Indian parliament , India