In Rajya Sabha, on Friday, the Congress Party demanded an apology from the Minister of Human Resources Development Smriti Irani for reading out “derogatory” references to the goddess Durga. The deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha (also a Congressman) assured them that “anything blasphemous” would be removed from the record. And so, the minister’s words were expunged.

The minister was reading ostensibly from a pamphlet for Mahishasur Martyrdom Day to illustrate what she said was the corruption of young minds in educational institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Was this point lost on the eminences who represent the Congress in the upper house and were on the side of the debate that says the government, in pursuit of its narrow nationalist ideology, had a role in the death of Rohith Vemula and in the charges of sedition against JNU students? I think not. Is the Congress party, like the minister they were attacking, illiterate about the cultural and religious diversity of this country? Likely it is not. But, it is terrified of being called anti-Hindu.

The Bharatiya Janata Party arrogated to itself the role of defender of a unitary Hindu faith and the Congress ceded this space to it without a fight. The Congress claims to defend the right to freedom of expression, but when push comes to shove, it is the distant possibility of snatching some votes from the BJP, or not losing more to them, that decides which way it jumps. The Congress would rather fight to have uncomfortable descriptions of a goddess expunged from the parliamentary record than challenge the minister to acknowledge that the Constitution that she has sworn to defend allows all sorts of ideas and opinions – and no one definition of reverence or offence can be used to label people as “anti-national”.

At the start of the debate on Wednesday, the Congress’s Jyotiraditya Scindia did a reasonable job of setting out the issues. He pointed out that the BJP government’s actions in pursuit of imposing its narrow nationalism had led to Rohith Vemula’s death and the laws of sedition being used to criminalise JNU students. When Irani’s soap-operatic performance deflected attention from the subject of debate, the Congress failed to challenge her on the lies she had told the House. What it did instead is to defend Irani’s argument that the content of the text she was reading was not acceptable. In the war the BJP is waging over limits to freedom and the idea of the nation, the Congress just conceded one more battle.

For decades now the Congress has proven to be a party with no sense of national purpose. It cannot be relied upon to stand in defence of the idea of India that emerged from the freedom struggle against polarising ideologies like Hindutva. When the BJP began to grow as a political force – its ideology and its goal clearly stated – the Congress showed that it lacked what it took to systematically challenge its majoritarian agenda. It could not do so because it had created the space for just this sort of politics through its own cultivation of narrow identity-based vote banks and a welfarism limited to “schemes” that did nothing to substantially change the balance of power between castes and classes.

Two tumultuous decades

In just the last 20 years, whenever called upon to show leadership in defence of the idea of India that its forebears fought for and the Constitutional values they espoused, the Congress failed.

Two examples over the last two decades stand out. The first, was the Congress’ conduct through the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and how it pitched its assembly election campaign at the end of that year. The Congress in Gujarat ducked and disappeared as Muslims were butchered. They did not offer any challenge to the Gujarat government’s violent campaign. Where they did offer support to constituents under attack, they did not want it publicised. For the election, the Congress had two manifestos - one in English, read mostly by those outside the state or by non-Gujaratis in the state, and the other in Gujarati. The English manifesto talked of the Assembly election as a battle against the “forces of narrow-minded communalism” ranged on one side and the “forces of secularism” on the other. It said secularism was the “bedrock of our nationhood”, and the assembly elections were a fight for the “nationhood of India” and “preservation of a heritage to which all communities of India have contributed.” The Gujarati manifesto made no reference to secularism, the nation, or the multiplicity of peoples that make India. The Congress in Gujarat, it was clear, did not disagree with the BJP. If it did, it did not believe it had an idea or a programme that could challenge the rampant communalism that the BJPs pogrom had unleashed. It hoped that by staying silent it would not lose more than it already believed it had. In the event, it lost rather more.

The second was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, with a general election round the corner. Quite clearly the decision to hang him was made in the same spirit as the Gujarat manifestos – an attempt to match the BJP’s claims to being “nationalist”. Guru became a rallying point for the BJP’s campaign that the Congress was soft on terror, another way of saying it was not committed to the nation. Once more, the Congress caved in rather than challenge the BJP. Hanging Guru won the Congress no votes nor did it, as we have seen in the last few months, end the BJP using Guru as a point of reference for its “nationalist” vs “anti-national” propaganda.

Moral vacuity

The moral vacuity of the Congress is underlined by what P Chidambaram said about the matter in the context of the sedition charges against the JNU students:

“There were grave doubts about his (Guru’s) involvement (in the conspiracy behind the attack on Parliament) and even if he was involved, there were grave doubts about the extent of his involvement. He could have been imprisoned for life without parole for rest of his natural life”.

Chidambaram is being commended for speaking out, but as home minister advised the President to reject Guru’s mercy plea, no doubt because his government was unwilling to deal with the political flak this would generate. Now far from power, with Guru six feet under inside Tihar jail, Chidambaram has no qualms in saying his government pushed to have a man hanged who may not have deserved to hang. He seems to be saying that his party will hang a man rather than stand up to a political bully.

The Congress may like to project itself as a defender of constitutional values such as freedom of expression, secularism, and the right to fair trial, but, when it comes to the crunch, it has been found wanting. The odd Member of Parliament or party worker speaking out makes no difference, when the party as a whole stands for nothing.