Rajputs have long been among the most well-known caste groups in the subcontinent, spread across what is now North India and Pakistan. Calling themselves sons of kings, Rajputs were large landowners who earned power and prestige as Mughal vassals. This rolled onto the British period, when they were designated a “martial race” and served in the Raj’s armies.

This was then. Of late, Rajputs have made themselves knows through violent protests against the film Padmaavat (It was originally titled Padmavati but the Censor Board asked for the “i” to be dropped in a somewhat mystifying attempt to mollify the anger). In states such as Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat, supporters of the Rajput group Karni Sena have committed arson, in one instance even attacking a bus full of schoolchildren.

This has naturally invited criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules in all three states as well as at the Centre but has clearly been either unwilling or unable to control what is a small group of goons.

But what has largely escaped notice is the Congress’ lack of criticism of the violent Rajputs. The largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha – and the only one in states such as Rajasthan – has soft pedalled its disapproval of the Karni Sena, hoping such politics will fetch it electoral dividends.

Lacking conviction

Indeed, the Congress’s response to the controversy has been disappointing all along. In November 2017, the Rajasthan Congress demanded a ban on the film. This position was apparently endorsed on Thursday by Digvijaya Singh, the party’s general secretary, who argued that Padmaavat should not have been made at all given that it hurt Rajput sentiments. The party’s president, Rahul Gandhi, had kept a strategic silence on the matter until Wednesday, when he tweeted:

This was weak tea for a party that projects itself as progressive. Gandhi was responding to an attack on a school bus in Haryana by Rajputs. Condemning it was the easy choice. Gandhi chose to be silent on the sustained mobilisation that enabled the attack. He did not admonish his party members who have called for banning the film or held Rajput sentiments above the rule of law. In effect, his condemnation had nothing of substance.

Clearly, the Congress is wary of antagonising Rajputs, who are spread across North India and particularly concentrated in Rajasthan. In independent India, Rajputs they seen their power fall with the end of large-scale feudalism. Yet, they still command substantial influence given their upper caste status and wealth – as is clear from the wide birth given to their ongoing violence. The Congress feels it will gain politically if it stands by and allows Rajputs to vent their anger at the ruling BJP. Indeed, Rajput groups have announced support for the Congress in the upcoming bye-polls in Rajasthan. Their support is driven by unhappiness with the BJP for not granting Rajputs’ demand for reservation as well as anger over the extrajudicial killing of Anandpal, a prominent Rajput gangster. In this mix, the Narendra Modi government allowing a film that many Rajputs take as an insult to their honour to be released has added fuel to the fire.

Poor strategy

The Congress’ position is not only condemnable – progressive values such as freedom of speech cannot be held hostage to a bye-poll – it might also be self-defeating. For some time now, the party has practised a soft version of the BJP’s Hindutva identity politics. It has, for example, maintained a studied silence on the spate of lynchings by cow vigilantes that have gripped the country and done little to stop the draconian beef laws. The Congress calculates that any statement seen as standing up for minority rights will help the BJP paint it as Muslim appeaser – as the Hindutva party has successfully done in the past.

This raises the question: why would anyone vote for the Congress at all? If a voter wants Hindutva, she might as well go for the real deal, the BJP, rather than settle for the B team. And anyone looking to vote on progressive issues such as minority rights would find the Congress wanting even in comparison to some state parties that have taken strident positions on the subject.

At this stage, the Congress is so lacking in conviction, it seems to be just hoping for the BJP to fail so it can emerge and pick up the crown in two-party states such as Rajasthan. But can such a weak plan work in the high stakes world of Indian politics?