Since its pre-independence days, the Congress had always displayed a strong streak of Hindu nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi used Hindu religious terminology, such as Ram Rajya. But the Gandhian Hindutva could be differentiated from the Hindutva of the Hindu Mahasabha or RSS. The Gandhian Hindutva did not directly attack the Muslim minority as anti-national. At the time of Independence and thereafter, the defence of secularism had become an essential part of the Congress party’s political platform.

Under Nehru’s leadership secularism had become a marker that divided the Congress from the majoritarian Hindu nationalist BJP. Nehru’s secular model seemed to work reasonably well. But his secular rhetoric was but a veneer behind which the Indian political elite facilitated the increasing intrusion of religion into public life.

While in theory this meant providing space for all religions in the public sphere, in practice it amounted to the spread of the Hindu vocabulary, imagery and symbolism in public life. This was bound to happen in a country where four-fifths of the population is Hindu and where people of all religions tend to emphasize their religious identities.

Historically the Congress ideology was built on a compromise that accommodated soft Hindutva while formally paying attention to the idea of secularism and the state’s equal distance from all religions. Soft Hindutva had been gaining greater legitimacy in India since the early 1980s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tried to play the Hindu card to shore up her sagging legitimacy. Indian secularism came under more severe strain in the 1980s.

Indira Gandhi sought to capitalize on religious differences, she recognized Aligarh Muslim University as a minority institution, promoted secessionist Sikhs and inaugurated the Bharat Mata Mandir. In the course of handling the divisive Shah Bano case, Rajiv Gandhi sought to invoke Sharia as the template for Muslim communal law in India as a way to mollify Indian Muslims. This political strategy enabled Hindu nationalists to claim that the Congress was indulging in pseudo- secularism ~ a pejorative term that connotes minority appeasement.

Having eroded India’s tradition of secularism through these actions, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi opened the door for Hindu nationalism to gain more widespread political salience. Sonia Gandhi’s claim that the Congress has always fought communalism does not reflect the whole truth. There have been times when the party had looked the other way around when communal marauders went on the rampage.

Be it the anti-Sikh pogrom, the Babari demolition and in many other such situations, the Congress has ignoed the crisis. It is for this reason that many critics call the Congress communal. Congress intervention to stop the violence generally does not take place. There are two reasons for this. One, the communal forces have infiltrated various wings of the state apparatus ~ police, bureaucracy, army and judiciary.

Second, communal power seekers have entered Congress without any conviction in secular values. Congress dispensations have tried to be secular while also wearing the tag of special protector of one religious community or the other. In the 1980s, a religious nationalist opposition exposed the weakness of the Congress variety of secularism. In 1986-87, Rajiv Gandhi capitulated to conservative elements by overturning a Supreme Court judgment that favoured Shah Bano’s appeal for alimony from her ex-husband.

Despite the eagerness to uphold the principle of secularism, the Congress could not avoid the danger of shifting its balance in favour of a particular religious community. The failure on the part of the Congress to observe impartiality towards all religions led to the emergence of the dominance of Hindutva as an ideology. The BJP emerged as the propagator of Hindutva. The single biggest factor behind the rise of the BJP was the Ram Janambhoomi movement of the 1980s.

It lifted the BJP’s fortunes in national as well as state elections. Since 1980 BJP has oscillated between a hardline approach and a moderate approach. A moderate position helps the BJP gain new followers and supporters. Once it has gained support the BJP brings back its hardline Hindutva stance. The Mandir movement was preceded and followed by a moderate approach. This alternating approach helps achieve both objectives ~ ideology and power.

The Congress and other Opposition parties often see a contradiction between ideology and power. They believe that they can’t win elections because their commitment to secularism isn’t selling, and some of them think they should junk secularism. But the alternating strategy of the BJP provides a good model. There is only one Hindutva party in India.

All Hindutva forces are together, from the BJP to the Bajrang Dal. The Congress, by contrast, allowed itself to be splintered again, thus fragmenting secular politics. This fragmentation happened because of the inability of the Congress leadership to accommodate the aspirations of local leaders. LK Advani always spoke of the BJP as an alternative model. It wasn’t simply anti-Congressism. The BJP’s successes have come through proposing rather than opposing. Even a negative campaign like demolishing a historical mosque was articulated through a seemingly positive proposal of building a mosque elsewhere.

Narendra Modi proposed a different model of governance and development and did not limit himself to opposing UPA-II. The Congress and much of the Opposition have come across as parties with no positive agenda other than anti-Modism. It may do well to look at the history of the BJP to see why positive campaigning works best. Given the situation the Congress deliberately adopted a policy of “soft Hindutva” against the hard or aggressive Hindutva ideology of the BJP.

The Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, attempted to project the image of a devout Hindu leader, visited and prayed at Hindu temples, and emphasized that he was a “Shiva Bhakt”. Not once did he or any senior leader of Congress utter the word “secularism” or emphasize the secular and inclusive character of the Indian polity in order to distinguish the Congress from the majoritarian nature of its competitor, the BJP.

The Muslim minority, normally a vote-bank for Congress, was totally sidelined by the party during its campaign in Gujarat. While this strategy may have paid it dividend in Gujarat, it has meant that the Congress has lost its primary identity, and has now become a pale imitation of the BJP. Despite its makeover, it did not only lose the electoral contest for Gujarat; more importantly, it surrendered the core ideals of the independence movement. In these circumstances, when the Congress failed to stick to the ideology of secularism and when it relied only on the anti-Modi stance because of ambiguity and negativity, the party has begun to lose ground and the BJP has taken advantage of the situation.

Throughout the 1980s, the BJP was a fledgling party, winning a few seats here and there in various elections. But it was the nationwide Ram Janambhoomi campign that lifted its fortunes. This is in contrast to the approach the Opposition has taken today, seeing state elections as the road to gaining power in Delhi. Creating a national narrative and campaigning around it to win Lok Sabha elections does not necessarily need state politics.

Narendra Modi in 2014 and 2019 once again showed how national elections don’t have to be a mere sum of the states. To succeed nationally, think national. States will follow. Mr Modi came to power on five major planks ~ jobs, economy, price rise, farm distress and black money. The Congress narrative revolved around livelihood issues while the BJP’s pitch was built on a blend mix of aggressive nationalism and “decisive leadership” of Modi. At the present juncture in India, Hindutva is still a dominant force.

The, Ram Mandir is re-emerging as a potent force, coronavirus has been a unifying factor. The BJP has relegated the Congress and other regional parties to the background. Its unifying role in terms of nationalism has gained the upper hand. The Congress and the regional parties will find it difficult to challenge the BJP on their own. The electorate will look up to the one that is better placed to fulfill their aspirations and Mr. Narendra Modi fits that role.

(The writer is retired head of the Dept of Political Science, Asutosh College, Kolkata)