In its confusion over how to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva, the Congress has granted autonomy to its state units to define their own positions on secularism, Hinduism, nationalism, gender justice, human rights and other great ideas Indians are forever conflicted about. The positions of the state units seem to be increasingly in conflict with that of the party’s central leadership.

This has created a perturbing duality: the party’s national leaders pillory the BJP and project themselves as torchbearers of progressivism while hypocritically letting the state units to pursue politics that is unmistakably imitative of Hindutva.

The duality of the Congress’s approach was evident in all its cynicism on January 3. That day, Congress MPs from Kerala brought black bands to Parliament, in preparation for observing a “black day” to protest against the entry of two women into the Sabarimala temple. The call for a black day was given by the party’s state unit.

They were stopped from wearing the bands by none other than Sonia Gandhi, the Congress matriarch. She is said to have told the MPs they could continue their protests in Kerala but at the national level, the party stood for gender justice and women’s rights. She would not have been wrong in adding that the Congress also stood for secularism; a tolerant, progressive Hinduism; and respect for the Supreme Court.

Initially, when the Supreme Court allowed women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala shrine, both the Congress and the BJP welcomed the ruling. They soon did a U-turn, however, becoming stridently critical of the Supreme Court and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who said it was his duty to provide protection for any woman wishing to enter the temple. Both parties are now engaged in violent protests against the judicial order and Vijayan.

The Congress is decidedly more hypocritical on Sabarimala than the BJP. At least Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a January 1 interview, upheld the traditions of temples that prohibit women from entering. In contrast, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has said, “My opinion is that women...should be allowed into the temple...There is a difference of opinion with my party unit [in Kerala], but I am going with the party.”

Congress leaders forget that the idea of nation is an abstraction. India is an aggregation of states. India exists in its towns and villages which is where the ideas of nationalism, secularism, gender justice and suchlike are contested, and won.

Personal beliefs of the Gandhis do not matter. What matters is whether they are willing to stand up for their ideas in the public realm. When their party’s state units turn reactionary, with the Gandhis being complicit in their makeover, neither India nor the Congress can become progressive.

Imitating Hindutva

The dual approach of the Congress, adopting one position at the Centre and another in states, can lead the party into a trap from which it will be hard to extricate itself. Take Madhya Pradesh, where Chief Minister Kamal Nath discontinued the BJP’s policy, introduced in 2005, of singing the national song Vande Mataram at the state secretariat on the first day of every month. He justified the decision saying the singing of the song cannot become a barometer of patriotism. This has always been the position of the Congress. Yet, he quickly reversed his position when former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan declared that the BJP’s legislators will sing Vande Mataram on January 7, the first day of the new Assembly, which they indeed did.

Nath went a step farther than the BJP. It was announced that on the first of every month, a procession, accompanied by a police band, will march along a one-km route, singing the national song and the national anthem before winding up at the secretariat. The ceremony to express patriotism will be open to the public.

Is it to be presumed that the Congress has rescinded its historical position on Vande Mataram? Or will the Gandhis say they do not personally believe that the singing of Vande Mataram can become a test of patriotism but the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit is free to adopt its own position on the issue?

Or take the Chhattisgarh government’s decision to assign important posts to the controversial police officer SRP Kalluri. He acquired infamy during his earlier posting in Dantewada, where security forces burnt down homes of villagers and carried out fake encounters on his watch. It is certainly a double standard on the part of the Congress leaders in Delhi to criticise fake police encounters in Uttar Pradesh when their own government in Chhattisgarh brings out Kalluri from banishment in the police training department.

The Gandhis obviously do believe in human rights and the rule of law. Yet there is little the nation knows about the Rajasthan government’s response to the merciless beating of Sagir Khan on the suspicion of cattle smuggling. Allowed to operate with impunity over the last five years, vigilante groups cannot be expected to melt away overnight. Yet, in the good old days, Congress leaders would have visited the victim’s family or organised marches to repair broken community relationships.

These instances from outside Kerala establish the Congress’s failure, even in power, to locate its politics outside the Hindutva framework. The BJP is undoubtedly trying to snatch away the Congress’s Hindu upper caste support base in Kerala, as it has in several states in North India. Indeed, it is to prevent the upper castes from returning to the Congress that the Modi government has decided to grant them reservation.

The Congress hopes to retain or win back its supporters through imitation Hindutva. This is why the party has federated the ideas of secularism, Hinduism, nationalism and suchlike. It enables the Congress’s state units to pursue orthodoxy and conservatism even as the Gandhis flaunt their progressivism.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.