There are few political flourishes in Indian politics that have been more successful than the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rhetoric about so-called pseudo-secularism. Popularised by party leader Lal Krishna Advani in the 1980s, the term refers to the supposed appeasement of Muslims by the Congress.
Using examples such as the Shah Bano case, where the Congress publicly opposed a court’s decision to award alimony to a Muslim woman, and the Haj subsidy of pilgrims, the BJP created the impression that the Congress favoured Muslims over Hindus. While the BJP’s claims of appeasement need be taken with a pinch of salt (Muslims have some of the worst poverty indicators in India), there is little doubt that the Congress does make appeals to the Muslim identity as part of its politics.
As if to reinforce this impression, the Congress chief minister of Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat, announced on Monday that all state government employees would be given a 90-minute break every Friday. The recess would allow Muslim workers to attend their Friday congregational prayers.
This was a modification of the original decision. A cabinet meeting chaired by the chief minister late on Saturday agreed to give Muslim employees a break between 12.30 pm and 2 pm every Friday. But following objections from the BJP and other sections, Rawat amended his order to extend the break to all workers, regardless of their faith. Yet, the message was clear: the Congress was wooing the minority community using an explicitly theological issue.
The Congress’ modus operandi is not new here. It has long used tokenism to appeal to Muslims. This has included cultivating mullahs such as the shahi imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi and other conservatives, whose claim to leadership of the Muslim community rested almost purely on the fact that they were men of the cloth. The Congress also actively discouraged independent secular Muslim leadership. Instead, it cultivated a class of so-called sarkari Muslims who had no political base of their own and existed as tokens of the party’s supposed Muslim inclusion. All of this meant that in 1985, when the Supreme Court awarded a small maintenance to an elderly divorced Muslim woman, the Congress government publicly backed the conservative Muslims who opposed the order. The Shah Bano case became a lightning rod to the Right, who saw the existence of Muslim personal law as incompatible with their idea of a monolithic Indian nation.
This tokenism may have given the Congress some short-term gains, but it turned out to be disastrous for it eventually. It awarded the rising BJP a stick to beat the ruling party: pseudo-secularism. Using this, the saffron party took on Muslim personal law, the Haj subsidy as well as Article 370 of the Constitution that grants the country’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, a special status. The BJP’s position, when combined with the agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid, was successful. From having two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, it now has a majority in the lower house of Parliament.
Not only did Muslim tokenism end up hurting the Congress, it also harmed Muslims. Since the Congress’ overtures rarely included any substantial development work, the community did not benefit from this in any material way. Moreover, it simply made it easier for Hindutva parties to vilify Muslims.
Uttarakhand goes to polls at the beginning of 2017. And in the absence of a strong pro-BJP wave, Muslims – who make up 14% of the state’s population – might end up being crucial to the Congress. While wooing voters is part and parcel of democracy, Muslim voters in the hill state might want to reflect on whether allowing extended breaks to government employees is the way they want the government to serve their interests. The Congress’ short-term tokenism has only ended up harming Muslims. It’s time the community demanded more substantial returns for their votes.