On December 23 2017, sporting a prominent tilak on his forehead, Rahul Gandhi enters the AICC headquarters to file his nomination to the post of the president of the Congress party. Since the nomination process was happening in the backdrop of Gujarat assembly election campaign, Rahul Gandhi was well aware of the cameras that were following him. The ‘tilak’ was contrary to what he had said weeks earlier, during the Somnath temple controversy, that religion was a ‘personal matter’ and was not something for the public domain.
This shift in Congress’s public image coupled with their election manifestos in promising gaushalas, commercial production of gau mutra to opening up a spiritual department is described as ‘soft-hindutva’. This according to Rajendra Singh, the Congress leader responsible for creating its election manifesto in Madhya Pradesh is a way to fight the “Muslim Party” tag given to them by the BJP.
The transition was quite visible in November 2017 during the Gujarat election campaign where Rahul Gandhi was seen wearing Rudraksha beads. During the same campaign, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said that Rahul Gandhi was not just a Hindu but a ”janeu-dhaari (sacred thread wearing) Hindu.
Rahul Gandhi was also seen visiting two of the most famous temples in Gujarat which inevitably led to criticism from the BJP who claimed that the visits were election gimmicks. In response, Rahul Gandhi said that he was a devotee of Shiv. By the end of his campaign, Rahul Gandhi had reportedly visited around 30 temples.
During each of these times, the Congress party president never mentioned the word ‘Muslim’. “In this election, no one has made a visible outreach to the minority community, particularly the Congress,” said Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara speaking to the Livemint. He also said that the only candidate who spoke about the plight of the Muslims and the issues faced by them during the Gujarat elections was Jignesh Mevani.
Immediately after the assembly elections, the Congress said that it would renovate over 100 Ram temples in the State. “Temples in Gujarat have been neglected due to official apathy, and thefts and other crimes have further eroded their stature. Many old temples are in very bad shape,” Gujarat Congress spokesman Manish Doshi told BusinessLine. The Congress leader also claimed that temples were neglected during the 22 years of BJP rule. Paresh Dhanani, Congress Legislative Party leader, also launched a drive through his NGO, Parivartan, to renovate Ram temples in all the villages in his constituency Amreli in Saurashtra region. He then added that his NGO hopes to revive the tradition of the Ram temple being the hub of rural activities and a meeting place for socio-cultural-religious bonding. The Congress also formed Shri Ram Committees in nearly 150 villages across Saurashtra to arrange daily prayers, reports said.
The Congress then continued this strategy in the Karnataka elections. Despite the fact that the Karnataka elections were held directly after the Kathua rape incident, the Congress was relatively silent about the incident except for organising a midnight march. Not only did it refrain from using it during its election campaign, the party refused to take a clear stand on the incident. The Congress leaders from Jammu even told The Print that it was necessary for them to support those marching in favour of the accused because the alternative would be leaving the field open for the BJP.
In Rajasthan, weeks before the Assembly polls, CP Joshi, who won from Nathdwara constituency, said that only Brahmins were qualified to speak on Hinduism. This statement was made on November 23, just days before Rajasthan went to elections.
“If anyone is qualified to speak on religion, it is the Pandits, the intellectuals and the brahmins,” Joshi said. He then went on to say that Uma Bharathi and Narendra Modi belonged to other castes and hence, they were not qualified to speak on Hinduism. He also called this a weird trend and said that in the last 50 years, Brahmins have lost their mind. Joshi had also told News18 that only a Congress Prime minister could build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. “It was Rajiv Gandhi who opened the lock of the Babri Masjid premise and allowed religious rites,” he said.
During the Madhya Pradesh election campaign, the Congress took out a Ram Van Path Yatra to trace the route taken by Lord Ram on his way to exile. The leaders of the Congress party said that it was being organised in protest because the BJP had failed to develop the route, despite making a promise nearly a decade ago. The Congress also promised in their manifesto that they would build Gaushalas in every gram panchayat, set up a new adhyatmik Vibhag (department of spirituality) and open new Sanskrit schools across the state.
Congress’s stance on the Sabarimala Supreme Court order allowing women to enter the shrine is the latest example of this deep-rooted problem in Congress. The Congress’s leader of the opposition, Ramesh Chennithala, in his initial response, said that every Indian should abide by the order but also said that tradition and rituals should be respected. This noncommittal response by the Congress is symptomatic of their positions. However, the party’s high command called the verdict as “progressive and far-reaching”. Meanwhile, the Congress party in Kerala after seeing the protests against the order decided that they had to stand strongly with the believers. Ramesh Chennithala who had previously said that he would abide by the supreme court order began advocating for bypassing the Supreme Court order.
This is not the first time that Congress has resorted to soft Hindutva politics. Rajiv Gandhi won the elections in 1984 elections, owing to the anti-Sikh riots and the polarisation of the electorate along communal lines. The anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination was led by the Congress leaders and justified by Rajiv Gandhi back then. The Congress’s slant to soft Hindutva has only helped the BJP, historically. Their soft Hindutva posturing has emboldened right- wing politics and encouraged communalisation. Even now, the electoral victories of Congress party in some of the states reflects this ‘soft hindutva’ strategy, which will also find traction in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.