The challenge the Opposition faces from the Bharatiya Janata Party today is the obverse of the problems the Indian National Congress encountered from Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League from 1937. At that time, the Congress had to deal with the Muslim League’s strategy of fanning the insecurities of Muslims and insisting that it was the sole guardian of the community’s interests. Composite nationalism, the League argued, was just a subterfuge to establish a Hindu Raj that would efface the Islamic identity of Muslims.

Today, the Opposition struggles to fashion a response to the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, which too thrives on fomenting the anxieties of Hindus. For the Sangh, composite nationalism is just another name for Muslim appeasement, and for eroding the very Hindu-ness of India’s identity.

Ironically, the response of the Congress to the Muslim League’s challenge in 1937 echoes today’s liberal-left ideologues who believe they must emphasise an economic agenda instead of squarely reacting to the BJP’s politics of identity. This, they believe, is tantamount to playing on the BJP’s home turf and, therefore, strengthening it further.

Congress vs Muslim League

To understand the similarity between the Muslim League and the BJP, it’s necessary to rewind to the winter of 1936-’37, the year in which elections were held to 11 provincial legislatures. Of these, the Congress won a clear majority in six and was the single-largest party in another three. However, it contested just 56 of the total 482 Muslim seats under the separate electorate system that existed at that time, in which a certain number of seats in each legislature were reserved for Muslim candidates who would be picked by Muslim voters. The Congress won 28 of these, but did not bag any in the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh.

Yet the Congress was optimistic because the Muslim League was able to obtain only 4.8% of the total Muslim votes all over India and won only 43 out of 272 Muslim seats in the Muslim-majority areas. Regional formations won most of the seats. However, in the United Provinces, the League bagged 29 out of 66 Muslim seats.

Given that Muslims did not seem particularly enamoured of the League, the Congress believed its chances of bringing them into its tent were high. If it were to succeed in its endeavour, it would render hollow the League’s claims of enjoying the overwhelming confidence of Muslims.

This goal inspired Jawaharlal Nehru to launch the Muslim Mass Contact Programme. Its principal ideologue was Kunwar Mohammed Ashraf, a communist. His mission was to convince Muslims that unity forged on the basis of common class interests was more real than solidarity achieved through a shared religion. After all, the interests of Muslim peasants were similar to those of their Hindu counterparts, both of whom were exploited by Muslim and Hindu landlords.

The Congress hoped to convince Muslims to support it because it was the only party that could free India from the colonial yoke and pave the way for the economic progress of all Indians.

The Muslim League regrouped to counter the Congress. The poet Muhammad Iqbal wrote a letter to Jinnah arguing, “The economic problem is not the only problem in the country. From the Muslim point of view the cultural problem is of much greater consequence to most Indian Muslims.”

Iqbal’s view has been echoed by many Sangh ideologues over the last three decades.

The Muslim League’s critique of the Muslim Mass Contact Programme included presenting Islam as having answers to all the problems of modernity, of pitching Islamic socialism as an alternative to Congress socialism. The League criticised the Congress for glorifying Muslims such as Akbar, Dara Shikoh and Amir Khusro only because they tried to synthesize Islam with Hinduism, but ignoring those rulers with an Islamic outlook who had also made important contributions to history.

The League saw the movement against cow slaughter as an attempt to subvert Muslim cultural habits, and the tricolor and Vande Mataram as Hindu symbols with which the Muslims of India did not identify. Vande Mataram amounted to promoting idolatory, the League insisted.

The Congress rebutted this argument, saying that only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram were sung at public functions – and these did not personify Mother India as a deity (and hence were not idolatrous). As for the history syllabus that glorified certain Muslims, its architect was a Muslim, Zakir Husain (who became Independent India’s third President). Besides, Jinnah had not condemned the tricolour before, the Congress pointed out.

But this did not check the Muslim League’s rise – it won 76% of Muslim votes all over India in the 1945-’46 elections, up from 4.8% in 1937.

(Photo credit: Reuters).

In many ways, echoes of this pre-Partition past are being heard again in today’s India. Like the League did with Islam, the Sangh claims Hinduism is a total ideology that even anticipated the future. It claims that ancient India was acquainted with aerodynamics, plastic surgery, the atom bomb, and a cure for HIV. It claims that the four-fold varna system underlays Hindu utopia.

Sangh footsoldiers have stoked social tension over cow-slaughter. BJP governments are revising history textbooks to glorify Hindu rulers who resisted Muslim rule, including offering the claim (wrongly) that Hindu ruler Rana Pratap defeated Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576. With a little help from the judiciary, the tricolour and Vande Mataram have become new markers of nationalism.

The BJP appears to be fighting the Muslim League in absentia.

Similarities in rise of BJP

In fact, the BJP’s growth mimics the Muslim League’s rise as well. Much like the League’s poor performance in 1937, the BJP won just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. It then launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, posing as the sole custodian of Hindu religious sentiments, and acquired a veto power on negotiations over the site in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid once stood, and which the BJP demanded for Hindus.

Since then, the BJP’s political graph began to rise. It would have risen at a faster rate but for the VP Singh government’s decision to introduce reservations for Other Backward Classes in jobs in 1990. The outcry against reservations impeded the Hindu consolidation, split as the community was between the upper and middle castes.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 turned the BJP into a political untouchable. In just six years, however, the BJP was able to wean away a clutch of state-based parties, exploiting their competition with the Congress or other regional rivals to come to power at the Centre. From then on, it has grown in strength, out of power for 10 years between 2004 and 2014, but never marginalised.

The strategy of building regional alliances was also how the Muslim League found a foothold in Bengal and Punjab, where it was bested by regional entities boasting of an inter-communal base. In 1937, the Krishak Praja Party of Fazlul Huq emerged as the single largest group in the Bengal Legislature. He tried to form a government with the support of the Congress, but the negotiations between them broke down.

Facing the grim prospect of rebellion inside his party, Huq wooed Jinnah. For his support, Huq declared that “no problem…relating to the administration of India can be solved without the League”. Months later, Huq said that had he accepted Congress support, it would have meant signing “with my own hands the death warrant of Islam”.

In Punjab, Sikandar Hyat Khan of the Unionist Party had been opposed to the “virulent communalism” of the Muslim League. Though the League had won just two out of 84 Muslim seats in Punjab in 1937, Khan suspected that Jinnah’s campaign had persuaded some Muslim Unionists into believing in the inevitability of Hindu Raj in an undivided India. For the sake of keeping his party united, the Muslim Unionists, including Khan, became members of the League in 1938. They were Unionists and Leaguers at the same time.

Once given a foothold in Punjab and Bengal, the Muslim League became unstoppable, not least because the Hindu Right, both inside and outside the Congress, too went into an overdrive. No less important was the outbreak of grisly riots under the Congress administration, particularly in Bihar and the United Provinces.

The politics of identity

Ultimately, in the 1945-’46 elections, the Muslim League polled 65.10% of votes in Punjab and a whopping 83.6% in Bengal, in Muslim constituencies.

The Muslim League once unabashedly represented the interests of Muslim landlords, but to counter the Congress it adopted, at least on paper, a more radical ideology. Likewise, the BJP has shrewdly rid itself of the tag of being a Brahmin-Bania party. It has now wooed Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to its side, adding him to a growing list of Other Backward Class and Dalit leaders with whom it is either in alliance, or has inducted into the party.

This trend points to another ironic similarity – Sunnis overwhelmingly dominate the Muslim population on the Indian subcontinent, but it was Jinnah, a Shia, who won them Pakistan, where the Shias are now imperiled. The fast expansion of the BJP, the Bania-Brahmin party of yore, is now under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who belongs to the Other Backward Classes. It is hard to tell to what extent the interests of Other Backward Classes will flower under the BJP.

Such then is the power of the politics of identity. It can sink, however temporarily, internal differences within the community. Perhaps grasping this, the Congress disbanded its Muslim Mass Contact Programme in a couple of years. Therein lies the lesson for India of 2017 – anxieties over identity cannot be overcome through just an economic agenda. The Opposition needs to address the sources of such anxieties, even when some of these are invented.

Note: The narrative of pre-Partition India is based on Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition, Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina, and Anita Inder Singh’s The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947.

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