Days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi framed the forthcoming electoral battle in Gujarat as one between dynasty versus development on Monday, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders had been hurling venomous barbs at Rahul Gandhi for visiting temples in the state. The Congress vice-president had created a flutter in the BJP by paying obeisance at the Dwakradhish, Chotila, Khodal Dham and Dasi Jeevan temples during his recent election tour of the state.

The BJP should have been quite pleased to see Gandhi visit temples. After all, the party has always depicted him as a deracinated Indian ignorant of Hinduism and its traditions, apart from accusing him of viewing the country through “Italian goggles”. This is not only a dig at his Italian-origin mother but also implies that he views the world through a Christian lens. For the BJP, therefore, Gandhi’s display of religiosity should have symbolised the return of an alienated Hindu to his cultural roots.

Since Gandhi belongs to the depleting army of liberals, whom the BJP forever baits and derides, his temple hopping also represents, willy-nilly, their acceptance of the role Hinduism plays in the public arena. It establishes the hegemony of Hindutva, precisely the goal the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has cherished from its very inception in 1925. Then again, the religious transformation of Gandhi should have had the Sangh crow as he is the great-grandson of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is anathema to the Hindutva organisation, which sees Nehru as the paragon of a westernised Indian.

A deracinated Hindu?

The BJP’s response has been quite to the contrary. Its leaders appear upset enough to respond churlishly to the public display of Gandhi’s turn to religion. For instance, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said at an election rally in Bharuch, Gujarat, on Sunday, “Now, Rahul baba…is offering prayers at various temples…[a person] who has never lifted a puja ki thali is applying a big tilak and wearing big garlands, without having knowledge about the great culture of this country, otherwise he would not have commented on women.”

Chouhan was alluding to Gandhi’s quip on October 10 that he had never seen women going to RSS shakhas in shorts. (It was only in 2016 that the RSS changed its uniform from khaki shorts to brown trousers.) In other words, the implication was that Gandhi is oblivious of India’s great culture because he, ostensibly, does not know that Hindu women do not wear shorts or freely intermingle with men as equals.

From Chouhan’s perspective, the great Indian culture is conservative in its ethos. It is an idea to which Gandhi presumably does not subscribe. And because he does not, the insinuation is that Gandhi lacks knowledge of the great culture and, therefore, his puja cannot be authentic.

Gandhi’s visits to temples were not just inauthentic, they were a sham, said Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath during the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra election campaign in Kutch, Gujarat, on Saturday. Never known to refrain from delivering vitriolic speeches, Adityanath said, “As far as Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples are concerned, I am surprised. Rahul Gandhi’s pakhand and dhong [hypocrisy and sham] is not going to work.”

Adityanath said Gandhi’s temple visits are aimed at misleading people. And why is that? Adityanath furnished what he seems to believe is a self-evident truth. “What else could be the purpose of a person to offer prayers at a temple who does not even know the difference of postures between puja and namaaz,” he said. Further, Adityanath accused Gandhi of not even believing in the existence of Lord Ram. He drew this conclusion from the fact that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government took an ambivalent stance in the Supreme Court on the question of preserving the Ram Setu, the 48-km stretch of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka that is also known as Adam’s Bridge.

The Sangh and Hinduism

No doubt, Chouhan and Adityanath’s remarks can be classified as typical pre-election rhetoric. Yet these reveal the Sangh’s strategy and worldview. One, it seeks to ensure that Gandhi remains trapped in the image of a Hindu who is ignorant of his religion. Two, they seek to portray Gandhi as being closer to Muslims than Hindus, because of which they claim he mistakes namaaz for puja.

Three, they seek to define the contours of Hindu culture. For instance, it debars women from wearing shorts and mingling with men as equals – the inherent reason why RSS shakhas are the exclusive domain of men. It demands its votaries accept uncritically the myths and legends of Hinduism, including in the divine origin of Ram Setu, and that ancient Indian sages were familiar with the science of plastic surgery and aerodynamics.

The Sangh Parivar has succeeded, to an extent, in imposing a conservative, insular definition on Hinduism in India largely because it has appropriated the religious realm for itself. This has enabled it to pose as the sole spokesperson of Hinduism, enjoying the right to define what its beliefs are and who a Hindu is. It tars all others as pro-Muslim and, therefore, anti-Hindu.

Gujarat isn’t the first instance of Gandhi visiting temples. But it is certainly the first occasion when the BJP has fielded big guns to fire at Gandhi’s display of Hindu-ness. Perhaps his past forays into the religious realm were not taken seriously because people did not perceive him to be a practicing Hindu, or his projection of his Hindu identity lacked the requisite authenticity.

Melting pot vs salad bowl

But it is not Gandhi who has had a sudden religious makeover. It is the people who have undergone a change. They are sullen over the economic slowdown, the disruptions that demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax regime has wrought in their lives. Jobs are not growing, and development still remains a rhetorical flourish. This has them listening to Gandhi and watching him from a position of neutrality, including his display of Hindu-ness.

Gandhi may not still be able to spearhead the Congress to significant victories, but the BJP knows that once Gandhi no longer remains a figure of derision, he will have also cast aside the tag of being a deracinated Hindu, and his party will no longer be considered anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. Its monopoly of the religious realm will get threatened as will its status of being the sole spokesperson for Hinduism.

More significantly, it will give fresh impetus to the battle between two contending ideas of India, which has been underway for nearly a century now. One view holds that India, to use the phrase of a social scientist, is a salad bowl, in which different religious communities mingle but maintain their separate identities. They are Indian because they share a common culture, bearing the imprints of its history and geography.

This culture is rooted not in a specific religion, but is composite in nature, a veritable medley of diverse elements borrowed from different traditions, whether language, religion or ethnicity. The lynchpin of this pluralistic culture is what is known as toleration or equal respect to all religions. These ideas were formulated by Gandhi and refined by Nehru.

In contrast to Gandhi and Nehru’s ideas about the Indian’s identity is that of Hindu nationalists, many of whom banded together to form the RSS. They want India to be a melting pot, in which all communities lose their distinct identities to become part of Hindu – not Indian – culture. In their conception, the Indian and the Hindu are synonymous, the idea on which RSS leaders have harped upon over the last three years.

In other words, the clash between the two ideas is to determine whether India should remain a salad bowl or become a melting pot. Should it become a melting pot, it will also be conservative, insular, militant and target minorities.

The proponents of the melting pot, particularly over the last 30 years, have gained salience because they claim the salad bowl increasingly has a flavour peculiar to religious minorities. This is an exaggeration but the propaganda has spawned anxieties and released energies that seek to turn India into a melting bowl.

It is to counter the melting pot proponents that the Congress has had Gandhi visit temples with greater fervour than before, in the process incurring the ideological wrath of BJP leaders. Gandhi’s temple visits aim to convey to people that the dominant flavour of the salad bowl is and will remain Hindu, but will also have an eclectic taste to it. That is understandable, as Hindus constitute 80% of India’s population.

There are obvious pitfalls in Gandhi’s endeavour. He could very well lapse into enhancing the dominant Hindu flavour of the salad bowl to the point it begins to resemble a melting pot. Remember the 1980s – the Rajiv Gandhi government set aside the Supreme Court judgement on the Shah Bano case in 1985, which held that Muslim men needed to provide a maintenance allowance to their former wives after divorce. The government’s decision was perceived to have imparted a preponderant minority flavour to the salad bowl. To neutralise it, in 1986, his government conspired to remove the lock on the disputed Babri Masjid, triggering the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which ultimately seeks to turn India into a melting pot.

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