Soft Hindutva to hard on hate: Rahul’s secular pivot welcome

Since 2014, the BJP juggernaut has swept elections and changed India’s discourse on secularism. I have often criticised the Congress party for resorting to soft Hindutva, fearing that its historical secularism is costing it votes.
The Congress felt that the BJP had succeeded in persuading voters to equate secularism with anti-Hinduism. So, Rahul Gandhi began wearing a sacred thread, visiting temples and calling himself a Shiv bhakt. The Congress and other Opposition parties tried to boost their Hindu credentials while keeping silent about atrocities on Muslims, believing they had to compete with the BJP for the Hindutva vote.
During the Uttar Pradesh election, I asked Priyanka Gandhi why the Congress no longer beats the drum of secularism. She replied that the word seemed to put off some voters, so she aimed to achieve the same end through other tactics such as emphasising women’s rights. This was farcical logic. Electorally, it failed miserably. Soft Hindutva cannot beat hard Hindutva.
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra marks a welcome return of the Congress to unambiguous secularism. He has repeatedly condemned communal hate stoked by Hindu nationalism. At the Red Fort, he declared that attempts to shout “Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim” on every issue diverted attention from big economic problems. He called for harmony and communal love to replace these messages of hate.

This show of spine may not produce an immediate avalanche of votes, but could help stem his party’s decline. It might hearten old, disillusioned supporters and win over young minds by showing that the Congress stands for principles even at some political cost.
The party has just won a narrow victory in the Himachal Pradesh election, with a vote share barely 1% above the BJP’s. That extra 1% was probably added by Rahul’s rising stature during the yatra. Opinion polls put the BJP well ahead at the start of the election campaign, but the Congress caught up as the yatra progressed.
Rahul’s ‘pappu’ image has given way to something more solid. The BJP itself reckons that the yatra has had an impact. Some right-wingers have said the yatra is being supported by urban Naxals, the Lutyens crowd, and anti-national elements. That should strengthen Rahul’s resolve, not weaken it.
He has sparked a controversy by squarely taking on Veer Savarkar, considered the father of Hindutva. After being jailed and tortured by the British, Savarkar renounced his ‘veer’ past and pledged loyalty to the British if released. Historian RC Majumdar cites Savarkar’s mercy petition: “Now no man having the good of India and humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-07 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore, if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress.”
During his yatra, Rahul said that while Savarkar wrote mercy petitions, thousands of Congressmen went to jail to demand independence. Surely, they deserved to be called ‘veer’, not those who asked for mercy. His Maharashtra ally Uddhav Thackeray quickly distanced himself from his remarks, saying his party had the utmost regard for Veer Savarkar.
A yatra is more spectacle than substance. Rahul will have to flesh out the gains of his trek. Communal harmony can only be part of his comeback agenda. He must provide additional reasons for voters to back him. But secularism is a good starting point at a time when hate has proliferated.
Hindu nationalists now claim that promoting secularism hurts Hindu sentiment. Any scholar will tell you that Hinduism is more about tolerance than hate. But thousands of trolls view hate speech as a celebration of Hinduism, and criticism of hate as hurtful anti-Hinduism.
Last week, Bihar RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui said that for Muslims “desh ka mahaul itna kharab hai” (the atmosphere is very bad) that he has advised his children to settle abroad. The state BJP slammed Bari for hurting Hindu sentiment. His party supported him, but its senior partner in the ruling coalition, the JDU, distanced itself from Bari, and obliged him to say he was sorry if he had offended anybody’s feelings. This is Orwellian. Surely the apologists should be those who ruined the communal atmosphere, not the victims.
Rahul must keep putting more spine into secular politics and stop being on the defensive. Secularism is a beautiful concept. Sing its virtues loud and clear.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on January 1, 2023.

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