Ideological confusion continues to hamstring the Congress, and that, arguably, is the most important factor behind its failure to stage a political comeback on the national stage. Not only did it legitimise Hindu nationalism during the many decades it was in power, it now dithers in ideologically confronting Hindutva.

The confusion dogging the Congress was manifest recently in the Maharashtra Assembly, where its members voted to suspend Waris Pathan, a member of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, for refusing to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

By contrast, the party’s national leaders argued that a person’s patriotism can’t be judged whether or not he or she agrees to chant the Bharat Mata slogan.

In neighbouring Gujarat, the Congress thought to embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party after an activist, who had been seeking Rashtra Mata (mother of nation) status for the cow, consumed pesticide and died. Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela thundered, “Cow is our mother and the BJP must declare it as our national mother.”

Last year, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh preened that the ban on cow-slaughter was first imposed by Congress-ruled states. Nobody quite knows the reason behind his gratuitous intervention, but it seems he was reminding the Hindutva camp followers that his party is as respectful of Hindu sentiments as the BJP – and that too, without terrorising or killing people.

Intellectual legacy

One way of looking at the ideological confusion in the Congress is to link it to the ignorance of its members about the party’s intellectual legacy. For instance, Congress members of Legislative Assembly in Maharashtra could have spelt out in the Assembly Jawaharlal Nehru’s interpretation of Bharat Mata, which is at complete variance with the BJP’s, and asked Pathan whether or not he agreed with it.

In The Discovery of India, Nehru writes about his conversations with people over their understanding of Bharat Mata. When they would ask him what Bharat Mata signified to him, he writes what his reply used to be:

“The mountains and the rivers of India, and the forests and the broad fields, which gave us food, were all dear to us, but what counted ultimately were the people of India, people like them and me, who were spread out all over this vast land.”

Nehru would then finesse the idea further:

Bharat Mata, Mother India, was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people. You are parts of this Bharat Mata, I told them, you are in a manner yourselves Bharat Mata, and as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery.”

Congress MLAs in Maharashtra, as also in other states, have yet to make the “great discovery” that the people of India seemingly made decades ago. If people have forgotten Nehru’s idea of Bharat Mata it is because Congress leaders have. For them, Bharat Mata is synonymous with Mother India as a goddess and they fear any other interpretation might offend Hindu sentiments – and strengthen the BJP.

The other way of looking at the ideological confusion in the Congress is to track how it created a milieu in which Hindutva could flourish. As an umbrella organisation, under which members of different ideological persuasions were brought together, the Congress did have to reconcile conflicting interests and ideas and evolve a middle path. The Congress tended to stray to the Right on certain issues, and to the Left on others.

For instance, despite Nehru towering over his party, four Congress-ruled states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – were the first to enact laws banning cow-slaughter in the 1950s. But the Hindu Right wanted a nationwide ban on cattle-slaughter including bullocks and bulls and cows too old to be economically useful.

Different cow-protection groups, therefore, united and staged a massive protest before Parliament on November 7, 1966. Provocative speeches instigated the crowd to attack Parliament. In the ensuing violence eight people died. It prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to sack Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda, who subsequently became a member of the anti-cow slaughter movement.

Indira Gandhi’s ‘Hindu card’

From thereon, the anti-cow slaughter movement lost steam and was relegated to the margin. Was it because Indira Gandhi tacitly marked out a threshold beyond which radical Hindus weren’t allowed to challenge the Indian state? Was it because she had signalled to Hindu radicals that concessions to their sentiments had certain defined limits? Perhaps.

But what we can be reasonably sure of is that Indira Gandhi’s decision to play the Hindu card from the late 1970s onwards legitimised the Sangh’s idea of Hindutva. The split in the Congress in 1969 had deprived her of organisational network. She sought to overcome this problem through populist policies like “garibi hatao” (poverty removal) and abolition of privy purse. Once the electoral benefits accruing from these policies diminished, she turned to courting the Hindus as Hindu.

About this persona of Indira Gandhi, the late journalist Balraj Puri wrote:

“Her frequent visit to Hindu shrines and religious personalities gave her a religious image. But what really endeared her to Hindu militants was her militant nationalism which she first introduced in Indian politics in 1970s and which she tended to fill in the ideological vacuum to which the Indira-JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] confrontation had significantly contributed as none of the sides was ideologically based.”

The drifting away of minorities from the Congress in the post-Emergency 1977 Lok Sabha election is said to have prompted Gandhi to think of creating a Hindu vote – and Punjab and Kashmir served her cause well.

The most telling example of this was in Punjab. Gandhi patronised radical Sikhs to corner the Akali Dal, and once the Bhindranwale phenomenon emerged, the entire Punjab problem was turned into a Sikh vs Hindu issue. Following Operation Blue Star, Gandhi at a speech in Garhwal declared that Hindu Dharma was under attack and appealed to save Hindu culture from Sikh and Muslim attacks.

Is this rhetoric any different from what we hear Hindutva hotheads mouth today?

In 1983, she courted the Hindus in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election campaign, stoking their fears regarding the Resettlement Bill that allowed Kashmiris who had migrated to Pakistan between 1947 and 1954 to return, reclaim their properties and resettle. The Assembly had passed the Bill twice, the second time after the Governor sent it back to the legislature for reconsideration. President Zail Singh subsequently referred the Bill to the Supreme Court for its opinion.

Gandhi, however, polarised Jammu and Kashmir provinces along religious lines, in the same way the BJP did in 2014. Like Modi’s BJP, Gandhi’s Congress walked away with 26 seats, almost all secured in the constituencies of Jammu province. No coalition government was formed as the National Conference won 46 out of 75 seats.

Stoking Hindu fears

But Gandhi didn’t just raise the bogey of Kashmiri Muslims to build a Hindu votebank. When the conversion of Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram rocked the country in 1981, then Home Minister Zail Singh publicly wondered whether “a conspiracy or political motivation” was behind the conversions. Given Gandhi’s grip over the Congress, it was assumed Singh was articulating her point of view.

Newspaper stories cited anonymous government sources to claim the conversion had been induced by “oil money” and that it was “a threat” to the unity of India. Academicians citing contemporary records mention in particular a sensational newspaper story which claimed that the Islamic Cultural Centre in London had hatched a plan to use Kuwaiti money to lure 80 million Dalits to Islam. The charge provoked a question in Parliament and the Home Minister had to declare that there was no truth in the story.

Nevertheless, the motivated discourse did fan anxieties among some Hindus, and led to a demonisation of Muslims. They were perceived to have forcibly converted Hindus under Muslim rule, and in democratic, independent India were using “oil money” to proselytise Hindus.

Perhaps this is why Gandhi’s return to power in 1980 also inaugurated a decade of bloody riots. It began with a communal conflagration in Moradabad, prompting journalist GK Reddy to note, “For the first time, after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, as many as 130 people died in a single incident in Moradabad.” Then followed equally grisly riotings in Biharsharif (1984), Meerut and Baroda (1983), Neli (1983), and Bombay-Bhiwandi.

About the communal riots, Nikhil Chakravartty wrote in the Mainstream weekly,

“Indira Gandhi is certainly right in pointing an accusing finger at the RSS, but she can carry conviction on this point only if she deals with an iron hand the communal proclivities insider her own party.”

Chakravartty said she was “certainly not communal as a personality”, but certain measures of hers had created misgivings. For instance, he asked:

“What is the point of arranging AIR broadcasts of recitations from the Vedas and other scriptures?”

He too pointed to her new-found enthusiasm for doing pujas in temples and said she was entitled to her personal belief. However, he asked a pointed question:

“Should the news of such rituals performed by the prime minister be dutifully broadcast by AIR [All India Radio]? Is this not a recent innovation? Nobody heard of such news-items in AIR broadcasts 20 years ago, not even 10 years ago.”

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the Sangh Parivar began toying with the idea of initiating the Ram Janmabhoomi movement during her lifetime. After all, the contours of a political constituency conscious of their Hindu identity had started to emerge. But the movement didn’t attract notice largely because Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984.

Hindu consolidation

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and the Congress role in it, saw the Hindu consolidation behind India’s grand old party, which swept that year’s Lok Sabha elections with 404 seats. No doubt, the election proved disastrous for the BJP, reduced as it was to two seats.

Yet, from the long-term perspective, the 1984 elections built a constituency that was taught to repose faith in Hindu nationalism for overcoming their emotional trauma about the threats to India’s unity and integrity. Gandhi and her son and successor, Rajiv, had inculcated in the Hindus the idea that they needed to protect the land Hindu in its ethos and culture.

This the Congress achieved more out of opportunistic than ideological reasons. For the Sangh, however, it was an article of faith. It now acquired legitimacy because Gandhi and her son had, through words and deeds, tacitly endorsed it.

In the competition for Hindu votes, the Congress was placed disadvantageously in comparison to the Sangh-BJP. As a party representing a medley of interests, there were limits beyond which the Congress couldn’t possibly go. Not only would it lose the votes of minorities, but also those of the secularists and left-leaning supporters. The BJP didn’t suffer from such constraints.

This contradiction became apparent when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reversed the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case and also opened the locks of the Babri Masjid gates. It was a classic example of trying to appease both communities and, ultimately, alienating both. From thereon, the Congress has simply failed to re-occupy the commanding heights of Indian polity, managing to come to power only through alliances and coalitions.

Obviously, the BJP is faced with the prospect of keeping the Hindus united, an onerous if not impossible task considering the caste contradictions within it. It is for this reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making concerted efforts to appropriate BR Ambedkar for his party, hoping tbe Dalit followers of his would follow.

This gives an opening to the Congress. To exploit it, the party, among other measures, needs to re-conceive Hinduism and the idea of being Hindu very differently. It cannot be achieved with Rahul Gandhi playing holi or visiting temples, in imitation of the very technique his grandmother adopted with disastrous consequences for the party. Really, the Congress needs to stop being Hindutva’s B-team, as it often tends to appear.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.