Starting in the 1980s, Indian secularism came under severe strain. Opportunistically enough, the Congress began pandering to one religious community after another more overtly, and Indian secularism was deeply damaged as a result. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to capitalize on religious differences in several blatantly cynical ways.

She recognized Aligarh Muslim University as a minority institution; promoted militant, secessionist Sikhs like Jarnail Singh Bhidranwale to destabilize the Akali Dal in Punjab. In the course of handling the 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 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.

Hindu nationalists began accusing the Congress of playing vote-bank politics with Muslims. But at the same time the RSS played the same card with Hindu voters. Balasaheb Deoras, the RSS chief, declared in 1979 : “Hindus must now awaken themselves to such an extent that even from the electoral point of view the politicians will have to respect the Hindu sentiments and change their policies accordingly. Once Hindus get united, the government would start caring for them also.”

In the 1980s the RSS relied on the VHP to mobilize the majority community around the powerful symbol of Lord Ram. The campaign around a prospective Ram mandir in 1989 resulted in a wave of riots that polarized voters along religious lines. Such polarization helped the BJP win the 1991 state elections in Uttar Pradesh where, in 1992, activists demolished the Babari Masjid to make way for a Ram temple. The demolition was a clear reflection of the Sangh Parivar’s anti-secular agenda, which remains its core identity today.

Several years after the Ayodhya movement, the BJP was at the helm of the National Democratic Alliance whose members did not share a Hindu nationalist agenda. The BJP could not hold its coalition intact as some of its NDA partners resented the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 during Modi’s tenure as chief minister. The BJP lost the 2004 general elections, and the Congressled coalition returned to a more secular brand of politics, as evident from the appointment of the Sachar Committee to assess the socio-economic condition of the Muslim community.

While the BJP quickly dismissed the committee’s report, which recommended specific policy measures to improve the status of the country’s Muslim minority, the UPA won the national elections in 2009. Since the 2014 election, surging Hindu nationalism has put the Congress and secularism on the back foot. Over the past two years, the Congress Party has indulged in “soft Hindutva”, emulating the kind of religiosity that is typically associated with the BJP.

During the state election campaigns in Gujarat (2017) as well as in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (2018), Rahul Gandhi took the unusual step of visiting dozens of temples. He presented himself as a Shiv Bhakt, displayed his sacred thread and let his entourage discuss his Brahmin background as well as his gotra. Congress has begun flirting with some of the BJP’s favourite campaign themes.

For instance, the party manifesto in Madhya Pradesh promised to build gaushalas (cow shelters); develop the commercial production of gaumutra (cow urine) and cow dung; promote the path that Lord Ram took during his exile from Ayodhya. The Congress party’s pro-Hindu trend is reinforced by the party’s strategy in terms of ticket distribution. In the 2014 general election, it nominated only 27 Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, a paltry 5.6 per cent of its total candidates.

Historically speaking, the Congress under Nehru and Indira Gandhi maintained a secular character. Over the years, the party retained its secular image for several reasons. Many of the top leaders have been more secular than the party cadres and the state-level personalities. The party has the prospenity to nominate a large number of Muslims in certain states. At the apex level, it is concerned with the socio-economic conditions of minorities. The test for measuring the party’s commitment to secularism has less to do with symbolic gestures like visits to temples or the representation of Muslims in assemblies… rather than with concrete public policy.

The contrast between the secular attitude of the top leadership of the Congress and the Hindu traditionalism of local party bosses has been evident since the 1950s. Congress leaders in Kerala opposed the court’s ruling in the name of defending Hindu traditions. At first, Rahul Gandhi openly contradicted his state party’s stance in the name of equality. After several months of agitation mainly by BJP leaders in Kerala, however, Gandhi diluted his position.

He could see validity in the argument that tradition needs to be protected. Whether the Congress leadership will impose a coherent line remains to be seen, but its ambivalence towards secularism will not only depend on the popularity of Hindu nationalism. Indira Gandhi indulged in similar ambiguity. The current iteration of the Congress is probably not compromising its secularism any more than Indira Gandhi did in the early 1980s.

While the extent of the Congress party’s commitment to secularism needs to be qualified, regional parties follow contrasting trajectories. For instance, regional heavyweights have oscillated between secular discourse and not-so-secular practices. Some of them left the BJP-led NDA coalition after violence erupted against Muslims and Christians, but these parties have rejoined the BJP alliance when it has suited them politically. Other regional parties continue to defend minority rights and nominate Muslim candidates in large numbers in the name of secularism.

Another major institution that has defended secularism in the past is the judiciary whose attitude in recent years has become ambivalent. Although the Supreme Court has generally tried to remain faithful to the secular character of the Constitution lower courts have occasionally espoused Hindu majoritarian viewpoints.

Nayantara Sahgal remarked: “We are unique in the world that we are enriched by so many cultures, religions. Now they want to squash us into one culture. So it is a dangerous time. We do not want to lose our richness. We do not want to lose anything … all that Islam has brought us, what Sikhism has brought us. Why should we lose all this? We are not all Hindus but we are all Hindustani.” Christophe Jaffrelot’s comments are worth mentioning ~: “Despite the apparent ascendance of Hindu nationalism under the BJP, however, it may be premature to conclude that this brand of nationalism has established undisputed hegemony over Indian politics and society. In fact, secularism may indirectly benefit from the reactivation of caste identities, which often can undermine religious identities. In the run-up to India’s 2019 general election, even the BJP has tried to exploit caste identities by introducing new positive discrimination policies. In the years ahead, caste politics may well gain momentum at the expense of Hindu communalism and indirectly contribute to a more secular approach to politics by dividing the pan-Hindu coalition that the BJP depends on for its majority. This development is all the more likely to be the case if class considerations become more salient.”

(The writer is former Head of the Department, Political Science, Asutosh College, Kolkata)