When asked if he backed Hindu priest Dhirendra Krishna Shastri’s calls for India to be declared a Hindu rashtra, Congress leader Kamal Nath on August 7 said that the matter was not debatable because Hindus constitute a large majority of the population.

Nath’s comment highlighted his long-running attempts to push a soft Hindutva image of himself and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The former chief minister has been building and maintaining this approach to avoid losing Hindu votes to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, political observers say, and also to shed what some claim is the Congress’ anti-Hindu image.

Nath’s comments on Hindu rashtra

Nath statements about India being a de facto Hindu rashtra, or a Hindu nation, came in response to a question from a religious leader named Dhirendra Krishna Shastri. “What is the point of making a Hindu nation, 82% are Hindus here,” Nath said at a press conference. “In a country where there is such a huge percentage, is it a matter of debate? What’s the need to say Hindu nation? The numbers say it.”

The former chief minister’s comment came a day after the conclusion of a religious event by Shastri in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara, which is considered Nath’s electoral bastion. Nath and his family have held Chhindwara almost uninterrupted for 43 years. Nath and his son Nakul had welcomed and appeared alongside Shastri.

The 27-year-old head priest of the Bageshwar Dham, a temple in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur, Shastri has garnered a significant following over the past year. He has also been a vocal supporter of India being declared a Hindu rashtra – a goal of the ruling BJP’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Soft Hindutva

While opinion within the Congress was divided about Nath courting Shastri, this was not the first time the former chief minister aligned himself with the Hindu right. Since at least 2018, Nath has tried projecting himself as a devout Hindu and a Hanuman devotee.

However, Nath has also avoided associating himself with the hardline Hindutva practiced by the BJP and emphasised India’s diversity. “I’m a Hindu, I proudly say I’m a Hindu,” Nath said in May. “[But] I’m not a fool. This needs to be understood.”

To this end, Nath and the Congress’ state unit he leads have taken several steps over the years aimed at creating and sustaining this soft Hindutva image.

In the 2018 Assembly election, when Congress came to power in Madhya Pradesh after 15 years, the party’s manifesto had promised to set up gaushalas, or cow shelters, in each of the state’s 23,000 panchayats. It also vowed to develop the Narmada circumambulation route and the Ram Van Gaman Path, the route revered in Hinduism as having been taken by Lord Rama on his way to exile. Under Nath’s leadership, the Congress also promised to strengthen the state’s anti-cow slaughter laws.

During the same time, Nath ensured that Computer Baba, a religious leader accorded ministerial status in the previous BJP government, backed the Congress in the polls. The religious leader also accused the BJP government of being “anti-religion”.

Additionally, Nath and other Congress leaders, including then party chief Rahul Gandhi, making a beeline for temples and ashrams in the run-up to the 2018 polls has often been highlighted as an evidence of this soft Hindutva approach.

Nath’s government collapsed in 2020 after over 20 Congress legislators rebelled to bring the BJP back to power.

Nath (left), his son Nakul and Shastri (right) at the religious event in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Nakul K Nath/Twitter
Nath (left), his son Nakul and Shastri (right) at the religious event in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Nakul K Nath/Twitter

Even in the Opposition, Nath has maintained his soft Hindutva approach. When the Central government informed the Rajya Sabha in December that there was no solid evidence of the existence of the Ram Setu, a bridge that Hindus believe had been built by Ram to connect India with Sri Lanka, Nath projected it as the BJP’s attack on the faith of Hindus. “This statement by the BJP government is an attack on the faith of crores of people of the Hindu society,” Nath said. “Lord Rama is the centre of the faith of the people. Ram Setu is the main pillar of our religious beliefs. I urge [Modi] to stop his ministers from playing with the Hindu society’s sentiments.”

Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge is a chain of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka. Popular Hindu belief attributes its construction to Rama, according to events in the epic Ramayana.

Nath also set up a religious and festival cell within the Congress’ state unit. It is headed by a kathavachak, or a religious narrator, and organises religious events. In June, just months ahead of the Assembly polls, Nath engineered the merger of the Bajrang Sena, a Hindutva outfit, with the Congress.

Over these years, Nath has extensively released images of him participating in Hindu religious activities on his social media accounts.

Nath performing a puja. Credit: Office Of Kamal Nath/Twitter

To shed an ‘anti-Hindu’ image?

Why has Nath, a lifelong Congress member, turned to this soft Hindutva politics?

In 2018, Rajendra Singh, the chairperson of Congress’ manifesto drafting committee in Madhya Pradesh admitted that his party was forced to focus on Hindus because the BJP had painted it as being a party of Muslim voters. “The BJP used to brand us as Muslim party,” Singh had told The Indian Express. “It’s a conscious decision to shed that tag thrust on us by our rivals. Earlier, we did not do anything to change the perception.”

Senior Congress leader AK Antony had similarly reportedly identified the “peoples’ perception” about the party being “anti-Hindu” as one of the reasons for its loss in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Rakesh Dixit, a Bhopal-based senior journalist and writer, reported in The Wire in 2019 that there was pressure from the Congress cadre. “The 15 years of uninterrupted BJP rule has convinced a large section of the Congress cadre that pursuit of power needs only different slogans and strategies, not necessarily a different ideology,” Dixit wrote. “Kamal Nath was quick to grasp the collective yearning for soft-Hindutva among the workers when he took over as state chief.”

Dixit added that Nath’s consideration may also be that there is not much to lose by potentially alienating the state’s Muslim voters. Muslims constitute only 6.6% of the state’s population, the 2011 Census showed.

Also read: Meet the rationalist who took on the high-flying Bageshwar Dham priest