Congress Is a Silent Witness to Pehlu Khan's Lynching

The party seems to have no knowledge of why it wins elections, when it does.

What does the chargesheet against Pehlu Khan and his sons under a Congress regime really tell us? It reveals the mindset of the Congress, and the dynamics within which electoral battles are shaping up in much of the Hindi Heartland.

One thing it clearly reflects is that the Congress no longer knows why it wins elections. The party has a fair knowledge of why it loses elections: corruption, poor governance, poor delivery and implementation of schemes, and an inability to counter the growing onslaught of Hindutva and consolidation of the Hindu vote bank. But why do people vote them back to power, when they do pretty much nothing to deserve the mandate they get?

It is this crisis of being clueless about their own relevance that is reflected in the hare-brained ‘strategy’ of filing a chargesheet, especially when the home department is with the chief minister himself, and then accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party government of filing the case.

The thinking seems to be that overtly going after cow vigilantes might further consolidate the Hindu vote bank, and give an opportunity to the BJP to raise the bogey of the Congress being an ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘pro-Muslim’ party. In order to avoid this, the Congress wishes to bring a law against vigilantes – but only after implicating Pehlu Khan and his sons, when the evidence of buying a cow for Rs 50,000 clearly points towards it not for the purpose of slaughter.

The Congress wishes to ‘appease’ the Hindu vote bank, the same way it sees the BJP wanting to. It then wishes to be marginally more sympathetic to Muslims. In any case, they feel that electorally, Muslims have no real alternative. The Congress feels that if it doesn’t go slow, the BJP will get an edge in projecting them as victimising Hindus, which might find favour with the electorate. If it does not allow the BJP this edge, the party may stand some chance or level the electoral playing field.

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The Congress, with neoliberal economic reforms, wiped out the distinction between political parties on the economic programme. Similarly, the BJP with Hindutva is wiping out the difference between the parties on the social programme. The BJP has become more aggressively pro-corporate and neoliberal, dropping all pretence of protecting small traders and Swadeshi manufacturing, and the Congress has adopted what we refer to as ‘soft Hindutva’ – which means for victims like Pehlu Khan’s sons, there is no hope for justice.

It is clear from how it has handled this case, which got wide traction in terms of growing violence against religious minorities, that the Congress is only willing to raise the matter in abstract terms of love and what ‘India stands for’. It seems to believe it cannot afford to go beyond this if it is to disallow the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank.

Especially after the massive victories of the likes of Pragya Thakur in Madhya Pradesh and Giriraj Singh in Bihar, the Congress is convinced that it cannot possibly antagonise the ‘Hindu’ voter. But is the party reading the situation as the BJP wants it to? This kind of helplessness will continue as long as the Congress does not clearly know why it wins elections.

In both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Congress scraped through without a major shift in vote share. The party itself suggested that in MP, it was more due to in-fighting in the BJP, and in Rajasthan it was more because of the hubris of Vasundhara Raje, that it won the assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh alone, it gave some credit to the current chief minister and the padyatra he organised to connect to the voters.

Chhattisgarh was the real surprise, which even the Congress did not expect. There are very contingent reasons offered by the party for its own victory. It is neither its manifesto nor its old track record – people voted out the BJP, rather than elect in the Congress. The Congress is in the waiting lounge of electoral battles, waiting for the people to get exhausted with the BJP.

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The governance record of the Congress in the states it won continues to be lacklustre, because no new programmes have been introduced. The Congress, it looks like, is continuously dodging the imagined ghost of Hindutva. The way it dealt with the Pehlu Khan case brings out both its helplessness and insincerity. It feels trapped – but also doesn’t want to do much about it. It has already conceded the social space to the RSS, and seems to be convinced that it is in no position to pose an ideological challenge and offer an alternative.

Much in contrast, in Karnataka the Congress government, even as it is in a coalition, went ahead with the investigation on Gauri Lankesh’s killing. The government did not hesitate to carry out an open debate on the kind of ‘Hinduism’ that her killers followed. Former chief minister Siddaramaiah disclosed his personal friendship with Lankesh, and on many occasions praised her contribution to public life and her personal integrity. It is with the same confidence that Siddaramaiah went ahead with the programme of declaring Lingayats as a separate religion.

Though the Congress did not do so well in the general elections, it has an agenda that clearly separates it from the BJP. In the Hindi heartland, if it wishes to come out of this utterly directionless governance, it should begin by knowing why people reject the BJP, even when they are convinced of its social ideology. This might bring the Congress out of its self-imposed exile.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.