A lot of hue and cry has been made about Congress president Rahul Gandhi's meeting with Muslim activists and intellectuals. To put it bluntly, it is not minority appeasement. The treatment of minorities cannot be at the sufferance of a political narrative which seeks political compensation on ground of perceived injustice in public life. If political parties can have outreach with the scheduled castes and schedule tribes then they can also have an outreach with the Muslims and any other community. Traditional cultural and political outreach within Hinduism has been around various 'samaj'. Except RSS and BJP who focus on 'Hindu' nomenclature, the outreach has been historically around various communities which are part of Hinduism.
In the context of the Congress, the issue of engagement with the Muslim community remains unresolved post 2014 elections. The ease of yesteryears is absent. Senior leaders like Sonia Gandhi have accepted in public that perception about Congress is that it is a party only for the minorities. It is in this context, the outreach question has become political. If Congress is a national party with secular credentials, then do it require an outreach with a community which is expected to vote for them? Are Muslims the only minorities in India? Would it have been better if Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians been part of the meeting with Rahul Gandhi? Is minority coterminous with Muslims for the Congress in India?
It also brings me to the issue of the people who met Mr. Gandhi. With due respect, the people who met Rahul Gandhi on Muslim issues, do they really reflect the anxiety of Muslims in far corners of India? Are they the political agents who have mobolised Muslim community for the Congress during elections? All of them are achievers but do they reflect the interest, ideas and experience of poor Muslims who have been left behind because of communalism and political appeasement at the same time.
Congress has decided to go for an outreach programme before the Lok Sabha elections. A similar exercise was done even during 2014 elections. Modi had no outreach exercise. He went for massive public mobolisation accompanied with massive messaging on the social media against Gandhi. It is history and we all know what happened.
The meeting shows that the dilemma in the Congress over its engagement with the Muslim community has not ended. BJP has the clarity that it would only go for the Hindu vote as originally envisaged by the RSS. Its politics would be opposed to any symbols associated with Muslims. Only outreach towards minority would be through governance. Even the reform within the community in context of nikah halala and triple talaq serves dual purpose. It helps Muslim women in India but has also send the message that BJP is treating both communities equally. The only irony is that reform which should have been done by the Congress today is a tool for politics because Congress leaders still support Islamic patriarchy and have not accommodated enlightened Muslim world view emanating from the better sex.
Congress took a radical turn during the Gujarat assembly elections. Rahul Gandhi who throughout UPA’s tenure was not seen strongly associated with religious symbols, hopped from temple to another. It was a departure from his speech in Hyderabad where he said that national flag is his religion.
There is a section in the Congress which feels that Congress should be unapologetic about its politics of secularism and party’s close association with Muslims should not be undermined.
In my view the real problem from the Congress stemmed from Rahul Gandhi’s political world view during UPA’s regime. He did not gauge that societies despite prosperity and development can become conservative. Austria, US and Italy are case in example.
2014 elections broke the binary of religious and secular in Indian political life. Then new construct allowed people to be publically devout and still be unbiased towards other religions. It created a new balance between the majority and minority communities. It is for this reason that the first place Modi went to after the winning the election was Pashupathi Nath temple in Kathmandu. Not a single word was uttered. Vermillion on his forehead and silent streaming of the visuals did the rest. Rahul has done similar with a limited effect where vermillion on his forehead was visible through the campaign in Gujarat.
Congress requires an imagery of what it is and where does it stand on the issue of majority and minority. In my view one can be religious and tolerant at the same time. There is a difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. Congress should embrace Hinduism to defeat Hindutva. Hindusim is way of life and Hindutva is an ideology which is intolerant and discriminates against other religion. It is not that Hinduism does not have the problem of caste but it also has inclusive philosophies.
It is just that this imagery needs to be constructed and projected powerfully. The best example in case is former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She could add secular to the Preamble of the Constitution during Emergency and still be perceived as a devout Hindu years later.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)