The battle for the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan is crucial ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and smelling victory the Congress has unabashedly embraced a milder Hindutva in its poll campaign.  For instance, in Madhya Pradesh several opinion polls, including CSDS-Lokniti  (May) and ABP-C-voter (July,) have predicted that the party is ahead of BJP in view of the severe anti-incumbency.

Though last year the Supreme Court ruled that “no politician can seek votes in the name of caste, creed or religion”, and that the election process must be a “secular exercise”, the political parties do not heed this. The court also held that elections would be void if a politician made an appeal for votes on the basis of religious sentiment.

The Congress has a big challenge as Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan has established himself firmly in the saddle. The saffron party’s main USP for elections is Hindutva and the BJP has grown in the past three decades by using its Hindu card. Chauhan had even placated Hindu mahants by granting six of them status as  ministers of state after they threatened to launch a yatra alleging corruption in his government.

To counter this hardline Hindutva, the Congress in Madhya Pradesh is employing a blatant Hindu card. Look at the way the state leaders have been trying to project themselves as devotees of various gods. PCC President Kamal Nath claims himself to be a Hanuman-bhakt and has erected a 110-feet Hanuman statue in his constituency,  Chhindwara. Former Congress chief minister Digvijay Singh had undertaken a six-month long 3,300-km padayatra of the Narmada parikrama trying to shed his pro-Muslim image. Former Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia visited major temples of the state apart from meeting various religious leaders and seers.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi himself had visited Kailash Mansarover recently sporting a tilak and rudraksha beads. The Congress made a big show of his ‘Shiv Bhakt’ image when he began his poll campaign recently with 11 pandits blowing conches when he landed at Bhopal airport last month. Huge banners and posters of “Shiv Bhakt Rahul” greeted him along the 11-km route. In Hyderabad, while talking to reporters, Rahul Gandhi denied that the party was indulging in soft Hindutva. “I don’t believe in any kind of Hindutva, soft or hard-core,” he said adding that there was no harm in visiting religious places and meeting religious leaders.

However, the Grand Old Party found that its old plank of ‘communalism versus secularism’ was not working any more, and decided to play majoritarian politics emboldened by its improved performance in the recent Gujarat and Karnataka Assembly polls. Interestingly, the Congress is not new to the soft Hindutva line, as the party had tried it earlier also. It had moved from Nehru’s pluralism to Indira Gandhi’s soft Hindutva. Rajiv Gandhi played it both ways and lost. While opening the locks of the disputed Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya before the 1989 polls promising ‘Ram Rajya’ if voted back to power, Rajiv also played appeasement politics in the Shah Bano case. Under Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand the party tilted towards minority appeasement.

The party’s poll strategy is twofold. The first is to make sure the present Hindu voters supporting the Congress do not migrate to other parties and the second is to lure other Hindus back to the Congress fold. After the party’s defeat in the 2013 Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, senior Congress leader A.K.Antony, in his report to the party had said that some sections of the society had perceived that the Congress was indulging in Muslim appeasement.

Further, the Congress has chosen religious Hinduism and cow politics to lace its Hindu card. Dijvijaya Singh had stated recently that the government would construct the ‘Ram Path’ (a route that is said to have been taken by Lord Ram during his 14-year exile) should his party come to power. The Congress party’s other gambit is the promise to build cowsheds in the 23006 panchayats in the state. Kamal Nath tweeted on September 3, “Pradesh ki har panchayat mein ‘gaushala’ banayenge. Ye ghoshna nahi, vachan hai (We will build a gaushalas in every panchayat. This is a promise, not an announcement).”  Moreover, the usual references to the minorities welfare schemes are also absent in the campaign speeches. Muslim spokespersons of the party have been asked to keep a low profile. Interestingly, the promised religious tourism hub involves major Hindu pilgrim centres in the state but does not include Bhopal’s Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques.

With all these, can the Congress succeed in beating the BJP at its own game? Will ‘Jai Siya Ram’ cry of the Congress work for the party against the BJP’s  ‘Jai Sri Ram’?  Or will the people feel as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has asked, “If the original is available why choose a copy?”