A Transmogrified Congress Tilts the Discourse in Favour of Conservatism

Rahul Gandhi offers prayers at Sharadamba Temple, Sringeri Mutt. Source: https://hinduexistence.org/2018/09/13/congress-is-using-hindutva-to-make-a-political-gain/

The Lok Sabha Elections of 2019 are dubbed by many as a watershed moment in Indian political history. The jury is out on analysing the causes behind such a mandate. Few have ascribed the massive victory of BJP singularly to Modi’s personal charisma, while others have given a more nuanced explanation in terms of the organisational outreach of BJP’s election machinery, coupled with the credible narrative of a strong, decisive and a corruption-free government which BJP was able to weave in the election campaign.

Whatever be the cause, the consequences have altered the political landscape decisively in favour of BJP, granting them a formidable presence in both houses of the Parliament. A relatively less conspicuous yet equally significant outcome is the one which goes beyond the polling sanction and arguably is not discussed enough. It is the ideological overtaking of Conservatism over the entrenched Secularist-Socialist discourse that dominated up until recently. The startling fact is that the Congress party contributed in actualizing this takeover. 

Beginning from the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2017, the Congress has exhibited a steady progression toward what is generally referred to as ‘soft-Hindutva’, to endear a part of BJP vote-constituency. One may debate whether what Congress does classifies as Hindutva or not, but the frantic attempts of the Congress to appropriate “Hindu Symbolism” mark an ideational defeat of the insinuation of a peculiar Nehruvian discourse that attempted to divorce Indian social realities with its political manifestation.  

Nehruvian here doesn’t necessarily allude to a particular individual, Pandit Nehru in this case, but a pattern of distortions effected by juxtaposing an ideological framework of European Secularism, completely un-resonant to Indian realities, on Indian social realities un-resonant to European framework. Reference to Nehru however is inevitable since he, who after Independence almost dwarfed the entire Congress party personally as well as ideologically, steered the dual path of socialist secularism that Congress eventually embraced. Nehru’s personal fascination with Fabian Socialism and European Secularism led to a steady departure of the Congress from its natural legacy left by early leaders such as Justice Ranade, Lokmanya Tilak and even Mahatma Gandhi, though all of them had their individual differences. 

Congress of the past appreciated the ‘social content’ – comprising of cultural content, civilizational ethos and inherent dharmic blend – of Indian society which reflected in its functioning. 

Nehruvian Secularism however distanced Congress from its original roots and embodied a lopsided, almost perverted version of Secularism that thrived on the opportunistic politics of appeasement for parochial political dividends. The liberal intelligentsia of a peculiar kind furthered this distortion thereby marginalizing Conservative voices to the extent that Conservatism was assumed as politically outcast.

On the other hand, the lopsided discourse in the country allowed Congress to survive as a Secular party despite the 1984 Sikh riots, continuous pandering to minorities and uneasy neglect of the sentiments of the majority population. The logic was clear – majority consolidation made little electoral sense and so caste appropriation was effectively handled to keep the election arithmetic working. In distancing itself from the ‘social content’ of India and acquiring highly unfavourable secularist discourses lie the roots of a popular Conservative movement in India. 

Similarly, on the economic front, the love affair with Socialism proved disastrous for the economy, resulting in stagnant growth rates (secularists proudly refer to it as the ‘Hindu’ rate of growth), unemployment, inflation and recurring balance of payments crises. This economic crisis eventually forced Congress to cast away the leftovers of Socialism and move towards a more market-friendly economy, even as they continue to stick to Socialism in letter, if not necessarily in spirit. 

Interestingly, it is again a crisis – the crisis of its legitimacy – which is forcing Congress’s transmogrification into a soft- Hindutva party. The disastrous performance in 2014 general elections reducing it to its least ever presence in Parliament, and subsequent losses in State Assembly Elections posed a genuine crisis of legitimacy for Congress. This crisis of legitimacy, successive electoral blows, and the inability of the Opposition to build a prominent counter-narrative shaped this new avatar of Congress. 

The soft-conservative tilt of Congress is best exemplified by its transformation from ‘we don’t wear religion on our sleeves’ to ‘we are better Hindus than you’. Right from the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2017 which was the first laboratory for Congress to test its experiment, it conveniently co-opted the soft-Hindutva narrative to swing borderline votes in its favour. Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections followed the same strategy, where Rahul Gandhi was actively projected as “Shiv-Bhakta” and Kamal Nath as “Hanuman Bhakta”, not to mention the promise of establishing gaushalasin all panchayats. 

The general election campaign too was no different. Be it the Janeyu Dhari remark, the Shiv Bhakt anointing, or a practised ambiguity over the Ram Temple issue, Congress is no more apprehensive of using religious undertones. While one may debate the extent to which this changed approach contributed to the increased seat-share of Congress in some of these State Assembly elections,  that the Congress was explicitly adopting this line underlined the changing undertones in the political order.

Akshay Ranade

Akshay Ranade is Assistant Professor, International Relations at MIT School of Government, Pune. is areas of interest are India's Foreign and Security Politics, Political Ideologies and Indian Political Thought.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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