One election does not decide the fate of a political party. If that were so, the BJP should have been dead 19 years ago when it returned exactly two members to the Lok Sabha. After Gujarat, the Congress party is still in a state of deep shock, and before it recovers it may be due for another shock in Himachal Pradesh. The question is not whether the Congress party will survive the shocks. It will. The real question is whether the party, after surviving the shocks, will still be the Congress party that was founded by far-sighted liberals in 1885, that won India freedom in 1947 and that crafted the Constitution of India in 1950 Or will it be an altogether different party that quietly buried its history and assumed a new avatar
What is this nation that we call India In 1947, we were 320 million people, today we are 1020 million strong. This is the land that gave birth to four great religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. This is also the land that welcomed to its shores Christianity (more than 2000 years ago), Islam (a thousand years ago) and Zorastrianism. There were several waves of migration into India. Many thousands left the country to seek their fortunes in distant lands. The races mingled with each other. People were converted and re-converted from one faith to another. The oppressed constantly looked for ways to escape from their villages, from serfdom, from poverty. If they thought that one religion perpetuated their bondage, another gave them the illusion of salvation. The people spoke over a hundred languages but there was an enduring sense of belonging to one country.
In such a country, is it possible to expect or aspire for homogeneity India is India because of its many languages, races, religions and cultures. It is this India plural, heterogeneous and variegated that must be welded into one nation. And it is to liberate and govern this India that the Congress party was founded and moulded into becoming the leading political party of the country. It had leaders of many contrasting hues. For instance, there was Gandhiji, a Vaisya, who quoted the Gita, freely invoked religious symbols and began his meetings with prayers. There was also Pandit Nehru, a Brahmin, who never visited a temple and proudly described himself an agnostic. The Congress party did not choose one and discard the other. The people loved both. The Congress leaders were leaders not because of their religious affiliations but because they worked sincerely to turn the hopes and aspirations of the people into reality.
To a party that was forged in the furnace of the freedom struggle, secularism was second nature. EV Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar) denied God and religion, but that did not make him more secular than Rajaji, an orthodox Brahmin. Then came Kamaraj who was neither an atheist nor (to the best of my knowledge) a practising Hindu. The people of Tamil Nadu did not rank these leaders or vote for them or vote them out because of their religious beliefs. Their religion was irrelevant to their politics. Politics and religion were kept apart and that, in my view, is the essence of secular politics.
At times, Congress leaders failed the people. As a consequence, the party was defeated in many elections. New leaders emerged and the party returned to power. No one has ever attributed these successes and failures to the Congress partys affinity with or antipathy to any religion. These successes and failures were the consequences of good or bad governance or, sometimes, simply as a result of the desire for change.
When the Congress party was decisively secular and showed the way, other parties were obliged to follow suit. With the exception of the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena, no non-secular party could win an election in any state. Even the BJP was forced to moderate its postures and enlarge its appeal before it won a state election. Other institutions also professed secular principles. Universities, schools, hospitals, academies, NGOs and even private businesses chose to be secular. Only the so-called religious leaders in every faith unabashedly encouraged fanaticism and attempted to turn one community against another.
It is true that the BJP is trying to turn the polity on its head. In this dangerous game it has enlisted blatantly communal organisations like the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. Some apparently secular parties have also joined hands with the BJP. They are not unsuspecting or innocent; they are self-seekers. It is possible that the BJP may achieve temporary success. But Hindutva or a Hindu Rashtra will not be an answer to poverty or unemployment. It will not bring more investment. It will not rid society, not even the Hindu society, of its many evils. On the contrary, a sharper polarisation on communal lines may lead to undesirable and unpredictable consequences.
The Congress partys answer to this challenge cannot be to bury history and become a clone of the BJP. The Congress has its USP. In the fifties and the sixties, it was seen as the party that led the freedom struggle. In the seventies and eighties, it was seen as the party that contained Pakistan and mounted an attack on poverty. In the nineties, its USP was that it was the party that dared to bring about a paradigm change and launched the economic reforms. In the five years that it has been in power the BJP has totally failed to maintain the momentum of growth. It seems that we are back to the bad old days of low growth, rising inflation, stagnant employment and an increasing sense of insecurity among all sections of the people.
The BJPs Hindutva gameplan can and must be foiled. The Congress and other secular parties should make a re-statement of their secular values: equality, equal rights and equal opportunity. Thereafter, they should go back to the people with an agenda for economic growth, more jobs, higher incomes, better education and healthcare, and the promise of a caring and compassionate government.
(The author is former Union finance minister)