Two developments this past fortnight – Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s trek to Kailash Mansarovar, on the heels of his numerous temple visits in recent months, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at a gathering of the Dawoodi Bohra community – suggest attempts at an image makeover by both leaders ahead of year-end elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.

Gandhi’s pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and the Mansarovar lake on August 31 and his temple run before that are all part of an exercise to help the Congress shed its pro-Muslim label. Similarly, Modi’s decision to attend the Ashara Mubaraka, commemorating the death anniversary of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Imam Hussain, at Indore’s Saifee mosque on Friday was meant to underline that contrary to popular perception, he is not averse to minorities. Two years ago, Modi had sent out a similar message when he addressed a large gathering of Muslim religious scholars at the World Sufi Forum in Delhi.

Though his outreach to the minority community is sporadic, Modi periodically feels the need to underline his government’s inclusive approach through its election slogan “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”. He has said he would like to see Muslim children with a Quran in one hand and a computer in the other, and pointed out that his government’s welfare schemes have benefitted all communities. The BJP-led government has also publicised its efforts to bring about a legislation that criminalises triple talaq, the practice by which Muslim men divorce their wives by uttering the word talaq three times.

So, will Modi and Gandhi succeed in convincing voters that their new avatars are genuine?

Amid lynchings and cow vigilantism

By most accounts, Modi’s Muslim outreach and Gandhi’s attempts to establish his Hindu credentials are, at best, viewed as tokenism.

In the current atmosphere of mob lynchings and cow vigilantism largely aimed at Muslims, the larger Muslim community is unlikely to shed its apprehensions about Modi. This is also because the Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Shia Muslims, are known to be close to the prime minister. They have a substantial presence in Gujarat and were targeted during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, when Modi was the state’s chief minister. Yet, they chose to throw in their lot with Modi to safeguard their businesses and also because they had benefited from his economic policies. In fact, Modi has cited their support as an apparent indication of his acceptance among Muslims.

At the event at the Saifee mosque too, Modi spoke of his warm ties with the Dawoodi Bohras, his long association with the community in his home state, and praised them for their contribution to the country’s economic development. “When I was the chief minister of Gujarat, the Bohra community supported me at each step,” he said. “The Dawoodi Bohra community is playing a big role in the development of the country.”

This support to Modi is unlikely to extend to Muslims beyond the Dawoodi Bohras and a section of Shia Muslims. The larger community has not forgotten the 2002 riots while mob lynchings and love jihad – a conspiracy theory floated by Hindutva groups that Muslim men marry Hindu women solely to convert them to Islam – in the four years of the Modi government have made them more insecure. So have Modi’s polarising speeches during election campaigns and BJP president Amit Shah’s declaration on September 11 that the party will not suffer electoral losses because of lynchings, such as that of Mohammed Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh in 2015. In 2011, Modi had refused to wear a skull cap offered to him by a Muslim cleric: that remains the community’s enduring image of the prime minister.

Muslims are also not easily swayed by Modi’s periodic outreach efforts because the BJP has made it clear that it does not need their support to win elections. This was the message in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, repeated in subsequent Assembly polls. The BJP excluded Muslims from its candidate lists for the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat elections last year to reiterate this message and to convince its core Hindu vote base that it has not abandoned their interests. The occasional photo-op with the Dawoodi Bohras is, therefore, seen as just a message to the larger Muslim community that it is in their interest to align with the BJP.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi during his Kailash yatra. (Credit: @INCIndia / Twitter)
Congress president Rahul Gandhi during his Kailash yatra. (Credit: @INCIndia / Twitter)

Shedding the ‘Muslim party’ tag

While Modi occasionally feels compelled to project himself as an inclusive leader, Rahul Gandhi has been at pains to correct the impression that the Congress is “anti-Hindu” and panders only to Muslims. Senior Congress leader AK Antony was the first within the party to flag this concern, when he publicly said in 2014 that the party had paid a heavy political price for its perceived policy of minority appeasement. “People have lost faith in the secular credentials of the party,” he said. “They have a feeling that the Congress bats for a few communities, especially minorities.”

Earlier this year, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, when asked about Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits, said the BJP had convinced the people that the Congress was a “Muslim party” and it had, therefore, become important to correct this impression.

But the party may have gone overboard in its zeal to showcase its Hindu identity. In November, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala declared Rahul Gandhi was a “janeudhari Hindu” (one who wears the sacred thread). Other party leaders have also been busy visiting temples and participating in religious rituals, promising quotas for upper castes, and even supporting a ban on cow slaughter.

The purpose of this exercise is two-fold. The Congress wants to blunt BJP criticism that it indulges in minority appeasement. And it wants to send the message that the saffron party is not the sole proponent of Hinduism and cannot speak on behalf of all Hindus.

Just as Modi is unlikely to succeed in wooing Muslims, Rahul Gandhi is also not expected to persuade the Hindu community to abandon the BJP, which has consistently spoken for Hindus while its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has vowed to establish a Hindu Rashtra. With Rahul Gandhi’s attempts at embracing Hinduism appearing to lack conviction, many say the Congress is increasingly being seen as the BJP’s B-team.

There is even fear that the Congress president could end up falling between two stools – like his father Rajiv Gandhi, who played the Hindu card when he ordered the unlocking of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and pandered to Muslim clergy by overturning the Supreme Court’s order granting maintenance to divorced Muslim women in the Shah Bano case in the 1980s.

The polity has since undergone a sea change with the BJP emerging as the dominant political force in the country and the Congress struggling to arrest its decline. Rahul Gandhi could nevertheless draw a lesson from the past. But is he is willing to learn from history?