It is never a good thing for politics to go just one way in a democracy as pluralist as India’s.
The defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the three Hindi heartland states, therefore, must be seen as a salutary course correction.
A hitherto supine Indian National Congress is clearly up and about, and a feisty revival of its self-confidence is visible everywhere. It will be graceless pusillanimity to deny that Rahul Gandhi as the new Congress president had anything to do with this. Gandhi has battled self-doubt and derision with a steady and humble self-application to the complexities both of his own party and the national zeitgeist, and he emerged triumphant.
Gandhi’s sifting of the campaign agenda and his denomination of personnel at all levels has, for the most part, been impeccable and untainted by small-minded considerations. As has been his refusal to answer the politics of hate and chicanery by similar means. He has earned his spurs the hard way and decisively put to rest speculations about his leadership. It may be said that his career graph defines a heroism of sincerity.
Most electoral campaigns in democracies tend to follow largely predictable axes of propagation, but three aspects of Gandhi’s campaign invite particular attention.
Throughout the Congress’s campaign, Gandhi has sought to take the party more to the Left than could have been expected. He has relentlessly attacked the crony-corporate friendliness of the Modi dispensation and countered it by highlighting agrarian distress and joblessness – issues that have yielded considerable traction among the populace – both in the rural and urban sectors. The severity of these mass predicaments has been far too real to be fobbed off by the regressively emotive shenanigans sought to be unleashed by the Hindu rightwing.
More controversially – and for most liberal commentators, problematically – Gandhi, after listening to the findings of the A.K. Antony report, has sought to boldly embrace his Hindu identity.
On the face of it, this aspect of his campaign must seem dismaying to those who hold on dearly to the secular principles of constitutional politics. There is no doubt that this new turn within the campaign has caused deep apprehension among minority communities, especially Muslims, who, regardless of their misgivings, see in the Indian National Congress some guarantee of secular safety.
Upon deeper reflection, however, a more constructive and long-term interpretation of this turn seems warranted.
An overdue agenda of India’s cultural politics has been to intelligently deny the Hindutva camp proprietorship of Hindu cultural identity. More acutely, Gandhi’s articulation here underscores that Hindutva, far from being a religious construct, is essentially a neo-fascist political theory of state and polity. Therefore, it’s far removed from Hinduism as practiced by India’s majority population. Where quotidian Hindus – like quotidian Muslims – have always practiced their faith in non-sectarian ways, Hindutva has viciously stoked sectarian and hate-filled cultural proclivities.
It cannot be detrimental for this contrast to have been flagged during the campaign. Gandhi, then, did not so much as succumb to Hindutva as he sought to dethrone its pernicious content with the virtues of personally-held faith. I make bold to say that if the Congress party works this agenda with intelligent discrimination and in tandem with demonstrated pluralism in government and on the ground, such praxis may rid us of a menace against which Indian politics seems helpless.
This must now involve re-owning India’s minority populations with conviction and without fear of the hitherto accusations of ‘minority appeasement’. Given that, however subtly, Gandhi has shown Hindutva to be the larger and more detrimental appeasement politics, Indian Muslims need not suffer any longer on account of an opprobrium that the Congress party has caved into off and on.
The Indian masses have seen enough of the depredation wrought by Hindutva as a political-cultural posturing now to know that it is anything but Hinduism. Gandhi has courageously taken on the onus to exorcise Hindutva jinn from India’s statecraft and body-politic. However, should the Congress be seen jittery again in embracing India’s minorities, especially Muslims, it would only end in paying a fatal compliment to the adversary it seeks to vanquish.
The third aspect of Gandhi’s tenure as party president concerns his style of leadership. By all accounts, his democratic humility is no mere posture. The stunning revival of the party structures from top to bottom seem intimately connected with his determination to respect opinions on as wide a scale as party functioning permits. He seems truly to have encouraged First Amendment rights, so to speak, to workers, satraps, regional leaders and party spokespersons to a point where they now seem both unafraid and all the more committed to the party’s ideology rather just to his person. This is a fine prospect for India’s multi-party democracy and for the Indian National Congress particularly.
But, having ousted the BJP from its heartland bastions by appraising the electorate of the hollow nature of political jumlas, the Congress must now ensure that its own manifesto does not similarly remain a fake gesture. It will be crucial for the party that its governance remains rooted in delivering upon its promises. Where if fails to do so for objective reasons, it must be able to forthrightly communicate to the people the constraints which prevented it from performing in those areas.
Much of the party’s credentials to play a leading role in unifying political opposition against the BJP in the upcoming general elections will depend on its people-oriented governance.
Badri Raina taught English literature at Delhi University for four decades. He is the author of Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth, The Underside of Things: India and the World, Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters and other books.