If the Congress leadership is serious about learning lessons from the recent electoral setbacks, as both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have said, there will be no better place to start than in paying heed to Salman Rushdie’s strictures against the party’s futile policy of minority appeasement. Yet, as Digvijay Singh’s dismissive remarks show, the Congress is unwilling to accept what is palpably obvious to others – that its kowtowing to the Muslims paid no electoral dividends.
Unless it gets over this mental block, it is liable to make the same mistake again of treating the Muslims as a purchasable vote bank through the promise of quotas and again coming a cropper. What the Congress leaders have to realize is that the party’s primary appeal lies in its non-sectarian image, sullied though it has been in recent years because of the kind of aggressive minorityism which was displayed by Salman Khurshid, among others.
The party’s claim that it stands for all sections of the people, irrespective of caste or creed, goes back a long way, of course. But, its continuing effectiveness is due to the fact that no other party has been able to present such a broad vision. The BJP, for instance, may have acquired the stature of a national party because of 20-plus percentage of votes in the parliamentary elections and presence as a ruling party in seven states. But, its basic image of a pro-Hindu outfit remains intact.
This perception is also occasionally boosted, perhaps as an unsubtle message to the cadres, by initiatives, as by the Madhya Pradesh government, to make the reading of the Bhagvad Gita compulsory in schools along with the advice by the state’s education minister to those who do not want to read it to leave the country, presumably forPakistan.
Whether or not the Hindus are enthused by this display of sectarian militancy, the Muslims are reminded about the BJP’s real nature. As a result, any effort which Narendra Modi may be making to reach out to the Muslims in Gujarat through his sadbhavna or social harmony fasts is nullified by Shivraj Chauhan’s championing of the cause of Hindutva.
If the BJP’s divisive politics is based on religion, the sectarianism of some of the regional parties harps on caste. While Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal root for Yadavs among the OBCs, the Janata Dal (United) poses as the champion of the non-Yadav OBCs under its Kurmi leader, chief minister Nitish Kumar of Bihar.
It is worth remembering that these Janata outfits are offshoots of the original Janata Party of 1977 and the Janata Dal of 1989, which were breakaway groups of the Congress and, as such, were expected to have the same broad vision of the mother party. It is unlikely that the disciples of Jayaprakash Narayan like Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar learnt their casteist politics from the Janata Party’s mentor.
But, the limited bases of their parties and also their own limited outlook ensured that the primordial loyalties of caste edged out any semblance of broadmindedness besides proving a useful tool for political mobilization. However, while these parties have at least succeeded in eschewing communalism, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra provides a unique example of combining both provincialism and communalism. Hence, its targeting of, first, the south Indians in the 1960s and ’70s, the Muslims in the ’90s and north Indians, mainly Biharis, more recently.
When the Congress unexpectedly won the 2004 general election, Atal Behari Vajpayee saw the outcome as a popular reaction against theGujaratriots of 2002. As a man who retained a vestige of liberalism despite being a member of a communal party – “the right man in the wrong party” – he understood that the country’s innate sense of tolerance and open-mindedness did not approve of a party whose complicity was suspected in the outbreak.
Again, when a faint wave in the Congress’s favour was discerned by observers in U.P. prior to the 2009 parliamentary polls, it was ascribed by the locals to the memories of Gandhi and Nehru. Unfortunately, that liberal, secular heritage was trashed by the party in the run-up to the assembly elections in the state this year when the focus was on minority quotas and on weaning away the non-Yadav OBCs from the Samajwadi Party and the non-Jatav Dalits from the BSP.
Not surprisingly, as the Congress converted itself into a replica of the casteist parties, and also bent low before the mullahs, as Rushdie said, the voters unceremoniously rejected it. Unless the Congress rediscovers its progressive, cosmopolitan roots, it will face further setbacks. Unfortunately, the present leadership appears to be too much under the influence of Indira Gandhi’s cynical brand of politics, including her faux socialism, to be able to rectify itself. (IPA Service)