Will the Congress’ altered religious strategy bear fruit?

Aditi Tandon in New Delhi

Come Tuesday and the Congress will get the first feel whether its recent Hindutva push is yielding the desired results or not. The grand old party’s effort on this front has been quite intense to say the least. How succesful this effort has been will, however, be gauged this Tuesday (December 11) when results of five state elections are known.

All eyes are, meanwhile, on the Congress, in power in just three states now. Can it stage a comeback on altered religious strategies that mark a shift from pro-minority to pro-majority politics?

Party president Rahul Gandhi’s temple run this election season are part of the Congress’ collective endeavour to shed the pro-Muslim tag that cost the party dearly in the 2014 General Elections. This endeavour is a calculated, calibrated move rather than a spontaneous one.

In fact, justification for Rahul Gandhi’s much-hyped temple visits on the eve of the Gujarat election came from none other than his mother and past party president Sonia Gandhi in March this year.

She was the first Congress leader to confess to the urgency of publicising her party’s recent Hindutva push. “The BJP has managed to … I don’t say brainwash because that is a rude word … but it has managed to convince people that the Congress is a Muslim party,” she said to everyone’s surprise at a media conclave earlier this year.

Delineating the Congress strategy on religion and politics, Sonia Gandhi also said in the same breath that her party had been “pushed into a corner” and so everyone felt the need to draw attention, rather than keep quiet, to Rahul Gandhi’s frequent temple visits before the Gujarat Assembly elections.

Sonia Gandhi’s open defence of her son’s temple run signalled what Congress strategists describe as a “much-needed shift” in the way the grand old party practised politics in times of aggressive Hindutva, championed by the BJP, which has come back to the Ram Mandir issue.

The shift was evident in the way Rahul Gandhi pulled all stops in the run-up to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections this season to prove his Hindu credentials. The Congress president went to the extent of identifying his gotra as Dattatreya and caste as Kaul Brahmin at Pushkar’s Brahma Temple where he performed an elaborate ritual during canvassing in Rajasthan before polls there. On the academic side, he got his strategists to sprinkle party manifestos with Hindutva elements, including gaushalas in every Madhya Pradesh panchayat.

But is this shift working? Congress leaders believe it has begun to deliver although these things take time. “The BJP is rattled by Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. Why so? Is Hindu religion a monopoly of the BJP? Can’t people visit temples? Do they need the BJP’s permission?” asks Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi in defence of his leader’s new political shift which has started to unsettle the the BJP.

Of late, Congress managers have also been working overtime to build Rahul Gandhi’s “Shiv Bhakt” credentials to appeal to the electorally significant Hindi heartland. Ahead of Karnataka elections this year, Gandhi proudly declared that he was a Lord Shiva worshipper. Soon his party flooded the social media handles with childhood pictures of the Gandhi scion wearing a janeyu.

Then came Gandhi’s dramatic escape in an aircraft scare, something he attributed to Lord Shiva, visiting the Kedarnath temple later as a thanksgiving gesture. The BJP kept up the competition with PM Narendra Modi praying at the same temple this Divali.

Symbolism apart, the Congress’ principal challenge remains gaining the majority community’s confidence on the ground where perceptions of 2014 still linger and keep getting accentuated.

On eve of Gujarat election, a dinner party hosted by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s for ex Pakistan foreign secretary blunted the positive impact of Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. The BJP won the state for the fourth time.

In the current poll season again, Punjab Minister Navjot Sidhu’s Pakistan visit for the Kartarpur corridor event, seems to have done more harm than good.

“Navjot Sidhu said Rahul Gandhi sent him to Pakistan. Why did Rahul Gandhi do so? Was it so important?’ questions Ved Prakash Agarwal, a jewllery shop owner in Jaipur’s Bapu Bazar, on election eve in the state.

Across poll-bound states, the BJP has hammered the point of the Congress promising “Muslim only’ services in its Telangana manifesto signaling its old minority appeasement streak. A video of MP Congress chief Kamal Nath placating Muslim leaders in the wake of party’s pro-Hindutva politics went viral recently, with the BJP asking Rahul Gandhi if he was a “real or a fancy dress’ Hindu.

Within the Congress, too, workers this time have questioned tickets to Muslim candidates who have no record of victory.

In Kota’s Ladpura segment, for instance, local Congressmen were livid when Rahul Gandhi denied ticket to a former royal and ex MP Ijay Raj Singh giving it instead to the wife of a Muslim candidate who lost the seat twice in 2008 and 2013.

With the BJP poll machine continuing to brand the Congress as a “Muslim party”, it remains to be seen whether Gandhi can meaningfully engage the majority. He tried in Rajasthan by asking if PM Modi knew what real Hinduism was all about since it was about acceptance that knowledge resides everywhere. The PM’s had retorted: “Even saints cannot claim full knowledge of Hindiusm but naamdaar can.”

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