Hindu appeasement as optics

The press coverage of the recently concluded Gujarat election had the media and commentators holding forth on the newly-anointed Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s soft ‘Hindutva’ push. The word “soft” as a ubiquitous prefix displayed the discomfort many of these self-defined secularists felt at the mainstreaming of this much-maligned term, which has been often used to demonise the current Prime Minister of India. To see the “alternative” display a far more aggressive push towards what is superficially considered Hindutva must have been deeply unsettling. Since it could not be avoided, it had to be acknowledged with a classification, a disclaimer almost — as “soft” — an electoral necessity, if you will.

The Indian National Congress, which is struggling to find firm ground in the shifting political landscape, has found it difficult to moor itself on an ideological embankment. Its tryst with a flawed and electorally convenient definition of secularism, which is popularly regarded as bald-faced appeasement, has reduced its presence to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and a handful of states. Its recent push in Gujarat was about appeasing the Hindu voter and establishing Rahul’s ‘Hindu’ credentials. Hindu, strictly in the religious context, unadulterated and overt. Hence the temple runs and not one visit to a mosque or any other non-Hindu place of worship. Party spokespersons trotted out a long-winded explanation at a press conference emphasising the ‘janeu dhari’ (wearing the sacred thread) status of Shri Rahul Gandhi, an overt reference to caste and most disagreeably attaching purity and righteousness to this adjective. This, from a party that questions the implications and alleged dominance of caste in the RSS, an organisation which impressed none other than Mahatma Gandhi during a visit to a camp over seven decades ago, when he saw all members eat together.

If the hypocrisy isn’t evident, or it possibly is, hence the “soft”. There is nothing soft about the Congress volte face and the all-around push to appeal to Hindu voters this time. It’s as hard as it comes and why must the “blow” be softened? And is it a blow at all?

And what of the hypocrisy, it is ‘Hindutva’ when the ‘deplorables’ do it, but ‘soft Hindutva’ when the ‘acceptables’ do it? Meanwhile an uncomfortable Congress (receiving blowback for its overt appeasement) is presently trying to define who is a “real” Hindu, read that as one who subscribes to their weak-kneed and electorally-convenient definition.

Hindutva is a political and social reality. If it is continually demonised, it will have people looking for politically expedient ways of defining it and explaining it away. Let’s relieve the angst, what the Congress did in Gujarat wasn’t Hindutva at all, neither soft nor hard (love the “fromage” reference”) it was appeasement. It is what the Congress has been doing all these years, in the superficial way that is supposed to solicit votes, the only difference is that this time round, the recipients of that appeasement were Hindus. And in the long run, it will do as much for Hindus as it has done for Muslims, because it is appeasement and not Hindutva.

But nonetheless the Congress party’s Gujarat campaign along with its supporters in the media, have given a positive spin to “Hindutva” more than even the BJP’s impressive electoral win in 2014 was able to do, in the latter’s case it was majoritarianism. Which makes one ask, is Hindutva the issue or the BJP? And since it’s all in the optics, one must give credit where due. As we gaze into the crystal ball for 2018 and the future of Hindutva politics, we will see two things. One, the soft will be dropped, as state elections in which the BJP has to be unseated come up for grabs. In these states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, we shall witness more temple runs and pledges for the Hindu way. On the other hand, in the state of Karnataka, where the Congress needs to hold on to power, minority appeasement will take centre-stage and caste, regional and linguistic lines will be drawn, to divide Hindus. ‘Hindutva’ will be ditched, for the most part. Perceived as atheist, the current CM of Karnataka, has gone to pains to refute this charge in 2016, which was levelled against him because he has visited no temples. He says he is spiritual and against superstition. Read that anyway you like — as Hindus being steeped in superstition or the convenience of the amoebic definition of “spiritual”.

What CM Siddaramaiah has failed to explain or address is the spurt in the killings of Hindu activists in his state in the last three years, including the open murder of two RSS workers in Bangalore and Bantwal, and that of young Prashant Pujari whose killer was spotted on stage with a sitting Karnataka minister in Siddaramaiah’s government.

Furthermore, as the call to ban PFI grows louder, the Siddaramaiah government has been consistently lax in dealing with the organisation. In Kerala, ISIS recruits have been directly linked to the organisation, and the police have gone on record to state that the PFI has the same ideological imprint as SIMI. But CM Siddaramaiah need look no further than his own state to check the antecedents of this group. In October 2017, three months after the Bangalore police busted an IM explosives module, agencies found strong evidence of a link with PFI. And yet, in 2015, the Karnataka cabinet discussed the release of 1,600 PFI members and earlier this year there were some sixty odd “activists” who were released. Will Rahul raise an alarm over the killings of Hindu activists in Karnataka, as he has in other instances of intolerance?

On the caste front the Lingayat issue has been drummed up and given contours by the present Karnataka government, seers have openly accused the government of dividing the community, stating that Lingayats and the Veerashiva are one. Hence, will the Congress’ Hindutva push of 2018 be a follow-up to the Gujarat experience? The answer is, it will be patchy, hard in some states, and soft in others. In either case it will be a tool to divide Hindus along caste, linguistic and regional lines. And the resolve will have been emboldened by the Gujarat results, although as political activist and psephologist Yogendra Yadav put it in a TV debate, the Congress will have to find its own causes to piggy back on — he was speaking in the context of the trio of Alpesh, Jignesh and Hardik.

The BJP, on the other hand, has in the last few months displayed a somnolence when it comes to Hindu cultural issues. If the Congress didn’t suffer from a trust deficit and the ire of the now vocal Hindu voice they would be in far worse shape. Whilst Congress is on the path to saffron signalling, the BJP so used to being considered the voice of the Hindu, is getting complacent. Issues that matter to Hindus have been sidelined, and there is a strange game of “trading places” going on between the two parties. The Congress plays the game of multiplicity by instinct, Hindu appeasement optics in Gujarat, fear mongering against the majority in Karnataka (despite the body count), Somnath in Gujarat, delay Ayodhya temple till post 2019 elections in New Delhi. The BJP, despite three years in power, has done little to address issues that have been unfair to Hindus. To name two: government control on temple boards and RTE. The only advantage they have over the till-now reticent Congress is that these topics at least received lip service. Those who could not be mentioned without being called a bigot or communal have become the coveted, Gujarat 2017 displayed that.

In all likelihood, this interest in the Hindu voter by the Congress is a temporary one, they will soon be appeasing and consulting its select band of deracinated supporters and consultants, who are tone deaf to the soul of India. Hence the sign language of Hindu friendliness is all that the Congress has to offer in the present. And in 2018 we will see more of it, in the “right” states. Whether they will continue to focus on Hindu centric issues, across states and beyond elections, is doubtful. Besides, the true reparation of a broken bond will take more than a ‘janeu’ and a temple visit. The silent majority, demonised in one state and at the national level in the past, and now being courted in another, is watching.

(The author is a screenwriter and columnist)

Advaita Kala