In poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has turned a pale shade of saffron. As it hits the campaign trail for assembly elections later this year, the party proposes to hold a “Ram Van Gaman Path Yatra” that will retrace the mythical route taken by Ram on his way to 14 years of exile. It is a pointed jibe at the Bharatiya Janata Party, which failed to develop the route despite a promise to this effect a decade ago. Among the promised attractions of the yatra is an open chariot, filled with Hindu holy men – usually seen as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stock in trade.
Indeed, the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh this time borrows heavily from the BJP repertoire. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi flagged off the campaign early in August with a temple visit, party veteran Kamal Nath promised a cow shelter in every panchayat and former chief minister Digvijay Singh promised to build the Ram Path that the BJP never did. The Congress party seems to have made some cynical electoral calculations and concluded that peddling a brand of soft Hindutva will serve its interests in the state best.
Madhya Pradesh, ruled by Shivraj Singh Chouhan for three consecutive terms now, is known to be a bastion of the BJP and a state where the mobilisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have created large pockets of support for the party. But after three terms, the BJP may be facing anti-incumbency and the Congress is determined to make gains. While it has already targeted the ruling party for scams such as Vyapam and illegal sand mining, both of which singed the chief minister himself, it has evidently decided to try beating the BJP at its own game in the Hindu-majority state.
Of course, the Congress has not been above soft Hindutva in the past. For decades in Jammu, where a Hindu-majority population is sharply polarised against the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the local Congress unit used a brand of religious nationalism to corner votes. These tendencies grew more pronounced in Gujarat last year, when Rahul Gandhi’s campaign seemed to consist largely of visiting temples across the state. In Karnataka this year, the temple run was repeated, with an aggressive Rahul Gandhi going so far as to say the BJP was threatened by his religious visits. Meanwhile, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi was anxious to assert that they were not a party of Muslims.
The Congress’s poll-time gambit could be deeply damaging to Indian politics. First, it suggests that the party has abandoned, or at least taken for granted, the Muslim vote as it chases the majority. This deepens the political marginalisation of the minority at a time when it is hounded and othered by a wave of majoritarian hate enabled by the BJP and its allies. Second, it threatens to entrench the majoritarian logic of Hindutva, shifting the very axis of Indian politics. The Congress might assert that it is reclaiming Hinduism from Hindutva and shedding its “anti-Hindu” image, but that is where it misunderstands its role as a credible opposition.
The repudiation of the Sangh Parivar’s communal politics cannot be milder communal politics. Secularism, tolerance, the protection of minorities, freedom of religion, freedom to dissent – who will stand up for these fundamental constitutional ideals? The BJP seems to have long abandoned them. Now, the Congress has shown it is not opposed to following suit if it means more votes in certain contexts. In the Madhya Pradesh elections this year and the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, Indian voters have a bleak choice before them.