Two things became clear in the first week of this year. The BJP is going to use Hindutva as its main weapon in the next general election. And Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra appears to be causing concern at the highest levels of Narendra Modi’s inner circle. I base this bit of political analysis on a speech that the Home Minister made in Tripura. As reported on the front page of this newspaper last Friday, Amit Shah directed his remarks at ‘Rahul baba’ and said that he should ‘open his ears and listen carefully’ to the announcement that on January 1, 2024, the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya will be ready to welcome worshippers.
This revelation was preceded by fulsome praise of Narendra Modi and a short history lesson. “From the time Babur destroyed it and left, from the time the country gained independence, these Congress people got it embroiled in courts – sessions court, High Court, Supreme Court again sessions court. One morning the Supreme Court order came. Modiji performed the ‘bhoomipoojan’ for Ram Lala’s temple and the construction work began.”
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When the second most powerful politician in India invokes Babur’s name in the same breath as he attacks the Congress Party for not building the temple, it tells us a few things. It tells us that the Ram Temple will open just weeks before the next general election. And making the announcement now means that we can expect a campaign in which temples and Hindutva will be used to deepen the fault lines that exist between Hindus and Muslims. Hindus will be reminded that there are terrible wounds in this country’s past. And Muslims will be reminded that Muslim invaders caused those wounds. Does it also tell us that Hindutva and historical grievances will be used to distract voters from dwelling on unpleasant subjects like high unemployment and high inflation? It is hard to say for sure because the Lok Sabha election is still 16 months away and who knows what changes could happen by then.
It intrigued me that for the second time in the past few weeks, senior ministers of the Government of India have spoken directly to Rahul Gandhi. First it was the Health Minister who wrote a letter to him with the warning that unless COVID protocols were followed, the Bharat Jodo Yatra would not be allowed to go forward. To make the warning seem serious, senior BJP leaders appeared in Parliament that day wearing masks. This exercise has now been abandoned. This time it is the Home Minister who is talking directly to ‘Rahul baba’. Why? And why did the Home Minister choose to refer to him in the way in which ayahs address their wards?
Could it be because there is growing concern in the highest echelons of the BJP about Rahul emerging as a mature leader who can no longer be mocked and jeered at? It has been a favorite pastime of BJP spokespersons to mock him in primetime TV debates as a man who is too juvenile and too much of a clown to pose any threat to the big leader. But there are signs that they are no longer as sure that their derision is working as well as it did in those pre-Yatra years when Rahul was hard to take seriously because he disappeared so often on mysterious foreign travels. And, because he was given to making muddled speeches about issues that he seemed not to fully understand.
His speeches still sound very confused when he speaks on economic issues. He recently said that the only purpose of demonetisation was to take the people’s money and give it to Adani and Ambani. There was a great deal wrong with demonetization even if it was legal (as the Supreme Court has ruled) but it was not done to steal money from ordinary people and give it to the two richest Indians. Clearly, when it comes to economic issues the Dynasty’s heir has much to learn. This does not diminish the astonishing image makeover that Rahul has achieved with his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
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It is not possible yet to assess if the huge crowds he has drawn on his journey from Kanyakumari will vote for Congress. What it is possible to say is that Rahul’s political messaging has been appreciated even by people who do not count as Congress supporters. What it is possible to say is that Rahul’s personal stature has grown remarkably and there is no question that he has emerged as Modi’s main challenger. When the Home Minister mocks him as ‘Rahul baba’ he appears not to have noticed that the jibe is no longer effective.
What it is possible to say is that millions of Indians are sick of religion being dragged into politics as it has been in the past eight years. What it is possible to say is that slowly but surely there is space being made in India’s political landscape for a leader who can pose a challenge to Modi. As someone who once said that the Bharat Jodo Yatra was a waste of time, I admit that I spoke too soon. But it may still prove to be a waste of time if immediate efforts are not made to revive the Congress Party’s crumbling organisational machinery. Unless this happens, Congress will not be able to take on Modi’s electoral juggernaut.