There will probably be a mixed reaction in the secular camp to Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping in Gujarat. To some, it may seem to be a negation of the Congress’s vaunted secular credentials and that, too, by the great grandson of the man who championed the concept of keeping the state separate from religion in independent India. To others, it was probably a tactical move to deprive the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of an opportunity to project the Nehru-Gandhis, and their party, as anti-Hindu, a propaganda ploy which the saffron brotherhood has been using for many years along with the depiction of “Raul Maino” as someone who is not an Indian at all. If BJP MP Subramanian Swamy is to be believed, Rahul is a Catholic and a UK citizen. It was perhaps necessary, therefore, for the Congress president to counter such charges from a party which can apparently go to any lengths to tarnish an opponent. Hence Rahul’s assertion that he is a devotee of Lord Shiva and does not need anyone’s permission to visit temples. That may not have stopped one BJP Chief Minister, Gujarat’s Vijay Rupani, from asking why doesn’t Rahul go to the Akshardham temple in Delhi which is not far from his house and another, Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath, to say that his posture in the temple precincts was like someone offering namaz, the Muslim form of prayer.
However, whatever his tireless critics may say, the BJP may be compelled to be somewhat more careful in future in its endeavours at character assassination. It is possible that Rahul’s temple visits, along with his silence on the condition of the Muslims in Gujarat, have been in response to senior Congress leader A.K. Antony’s observation in his report on the 2014 election results that the perception of minority appeasement continues to hobble the Congress.
At the same time, Rahul has to realise that his visits to temples cannot be a one-time affair. He will have to continue with these excursions irrespective of whether elections are being held or not. Otherwise, he will expose himself to the politically damaging conclusion that his visits were indeed no more than tactical manoeuvres intended to rob the BJP of a political point during a crucial battle. Rahul’s trips to temples cannot be like his earlier practice of slumming when he used to spend a night in a Dalit hut with a bottle of mineral water.
Arguably, it may be advisable for him to change tack by visiting the places of worship of other religions as well. That will be in sync with Mahatma Gandhi’s preference for readings from the scriptures of all religions at his prayer meetings to underline India’s composite culture. Visits to mosques, churches, gurdwaras and synagogues, along with going to temples, may be interpreted as too palpably showy and pretentious, especially by a person who has not been noticeably religious-minded till the Gujarat elections.
But it has to be remembered that the Congress is up against a party which regards itself as a monopolistic wholesaler in the business of projecting Hinduism and, therefore, the latter’s ploys can only be countered by taking the matter of flaunting faith to a different and higher level. It is possible that the BJP will be flummoxed by its adversary visiting the shrines of all religions because it is something which the party of cultural nationalism — one nation, one people, one culture — will never be able to do lest it should undermine its Hindu supremacist agenda.
However, demonstrating devotion to all religions will be widely recognised as typical of non-communal Hindus who have always regarded secularism as a celebration of all faiths, attending midnight mass on Christmas eve and visiting dargahs as that of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer in large numbers.
As the Antony report pointed out, the Congress’s mistake was that it deviated from the country’s long-standing syncretism and focussed on pandering to Muslim sentiments. This approach may have been understandable in the aftermath of partition when the Muslims felt lost because of the departure for Pakistan of the community’s tall leaders like Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the collapse of organisations like the Unionist Party in Punjab and Krishak Praja Party in Bengal which were based on Hindu-Muslim amity.
Since the Muslims consequently turned to the Congress as their only hope, the party apparently decided to treat them as its special responsibility. That this policy worked satisfactorily is evident from the BJP remaining in the margins of national politics till the early 1990s. However, it was the Congress’s inability to counter the whipping up of communal sentiments by the Hindutva lobby over the Ram temple issue from the 1990s which helped the BJP to make political gains.
Arguably, Rahul’s temple trips are a belated exercise to blunt the BJP’s tactic of pretending to be the sole custodian of Hinduism. But this opportunistic “soft” Hindutva line doesn’t seem to have worked in Gujarat if the exit polls are to be believed. It is time, therefore, for him to change tack and embrace other religions as well.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)