Election campaigns give voters the opportunity to evaluate the performances of political parties and consider how effectively they have delivered on their promises. The heat and dust of the election trail gives politicians the opportunity to hurl rhetorical barbs at their opponents – barbs that voters would overlook if the party’s overall political record has some merit. However, with five states poised to go to elections shortly, it was clear from developments on Monday that India’s voters can expect more darts than depth.
Continuing his temple run, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Monday visited the Ujjain Mahakaleshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh, which will go to the polls in November. This is part of Gandhi’s attempt to convince voters that he is an ardent devotee of Shiva. His endeavour has included a trek to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet in September and visits to a several temples in Karnataka in April, ahead of the elections in that state.
It has been clear for a while that the Congress has decided to project itself as a soft Hindutva party. This is in an attempt by the party to erase the anti-Hindu image that it believes has come to be attached to it, an image that it feels has cost it dear in recent elections. The Gandhi family, bolstered by the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, had long portrayed itself as secular and liberal, riding above the petty caste considerations that afflict much of Indian politics. But that narrative has quickly changed since Rahul Gandhi became party leader in December. Shortly before Gandhi officially took charge, the party chose to describe him as a janeu dhari Brahmin, a Brahmin who wears the ritual thread signalling his high caste. This assertion of misplaced piety and superiority has its foundation in the caste system perpetuated by the ancient legal text, the Manusmriti. The Congress statement completely ignored the fact that the ritual thread is a reminder of social oppression for many people who are lower down in the traditional caste hierarchy.
In the race to plumb the depths, the Bharatiya Janata Party has matched, if not surpassed, the Congress. On Monday, party spokesperson Sambit Patra asked Gandhi which gotra – or Hindu clan – he belonged to. This seemed to be an attempt to draw attention to Rahul Gandhi’s mixed religious heritage, since his mother is Christian and one of his grandfathers was Parsi.
It is ironic that a party that often offers sermons about the universality and inclusivity of the Hindu religion has attempted to deride someone attempting to display his devotion to a Hindu deity. By doing so, the BJP has signalled that it considers anyone, Hindu or an aspiring Hindu, as a second-class member of the religion if this person does not share the saffron party’s aggressive brand of politics.
This brand of rhetoric diminishes both the Congress and the BJP – and leaves India the poorer for it.