The limits of the Gandhi-Khurshid strategy - Hindustan Times
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The limits of the Gandhi-Khurshid strategy

Nov 18, 2021 06:26 PM IST

Take on Hindutva — but remember that it will have clear electoral implications and give the BJP a tool to distract voters

In this age of social media outrage, prime time noise and WhatsApp forwards, every word spoken or written in the public domain travels across the universe in real time at supersonic speed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s vast social media army, in particular, has mastered the art of latching onto even the slightest slip by its political opponents to create a storm in cyberspace and beyond. The latest example is the response to Congress leader Salman Khurshid’s book on the Ayodhya judgment, which has one sentence drawing a parallel between a “robust version” of political Hindutva and the jihadist Islam of terror groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.

If the Gandhi-Khurshid zero tolerance for religious hatred is to be pursued, then it must extend to any and every perpetrator of communal violence (PTI) PREMIUM
If the Gandhi-Khurshid zero tolerance for religious hatred is to be pursued, then it must extend to any and every perpetrator of communal violence (PTI)

In this age of social media outrage, prime time noise and WhatsApp forwards, every word spoken or written in the public domain travels across the universe in real time at supersonic speed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s vast social media army, in particular, has mastered the art of latching onto even the slightest slip by its political opponents to create a storm in cyberspace and beyond. The latest example is the response to Congress leader Salman Khurshid’s book on the Ayodhya judgment, which has one sentence drawing a parallel between a “robust version” of political Hindutva and the jihadist Islam of terror groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.

Khurshid has since attempted to clarify that he was only trying to distinguish between classical Hinduism as a dharmic faith and Hindutva as its political exploitation, but the damage has been done. Even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has waded into the strident debate by claiming that “Hinduism isn’t about hate or killing innocent individuals but Hindutva is”. In effect, Gandhi, without specifically endorsing the Khurshid line, is also calling for an ideological war on the Sangh Parivar.

As a purely academic argument, the Hinduism versus Hindutva binary is worth debating but to stretch it to suggest that a version of Hindutva is “similar” to IS-Boko Haram can only further muddy the troubled waters. The more toxic forms of political Hindutva have certainly ruptured Hindu-Muslim relations, normalised hate politics, even led to terrible acts of violence in the name of religion — the gau rakshak vigilantes and the Bajrang Dal lynch mobs are examples. But can the Sangh’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra, for all its disturbing anti-constitutional perversions, be seriously compared to the IS, a heavily armed jihadi terror organisation with a global footprint whose avowed credo is a violent takeover of nation-states?

The controversial line in Khurshid’s book may enable the author to sell a few more copies, and Rahul Gandhi’s video may have gone viral, but it is unlikely to garner their party any extra votes, especially in the Hindutva heartland of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Maybe, with the Congress still a marginal player in the fight in India’s most populous state, the party leadership feels it has little to lose by raising the pitch. But this only gives the BJP another opportunity to distract public attention from potentially damaging people-centric local issues — such as fuel price hikes, rising unemployment, Covid-19 mismanagement — and revert the narrative instead to typically religiously polarising rhetoric. In this searingly divisive battle, there can only be one winner.

This latest frontal attack on political Hindutva reveals the palpable confusion among the Opposition parties on how precisely to meet the challenge posed by the rising saffron tide. Just four years ago, during the 2017 Gujarat elections, Rahul Gandhi had suddenly worn his Hindu identity on his sleeve while temple-hopping and proudly proclaiming himself as a “janeudhari” Hindu. Other Opposition political leaders too have been mindful in emphasising their Hindu roots through public displays of religiosity — be it an Arvind Kejriwal while reciting the Hanuman Chalisa just ahead of the 2020 Delhi elections or Mamata Banerjee defining herself as a Hindu Brahmin woman who could chant the Chandipath during the Bengal election campaign this year. The Hindu incantation was arguably strategic soft Hindutva designed to challenge the monopoly of the BJP leadership over a so-called Hindu vote bank.

So which is the way to go — rant against the Sangh’s Hindutva ideology or compete with it by offering a more inclusive Hindu alternative? Recent election history suggests that viciously name-calling Hindutva as “anti-Hindu” is doomed to fail as a political strategy unless it is backed by a strong alternative ideological positioning or credible leadership. The Gandhi-Khurshid diatribe, for example, allows the Sangh to stoke a deliberate “Hindu as victim” sentiment, part of a wider religio-cultural battle between the so-called ethnically rooted Hindu nationalists and an anglicised elite. Khurshid will be mocked as an influential Indian Muslim who has insulted Hinduism, Gandhi as a Hinduphobic Lutyens dynast.

However, cowering silence is no longer an option either. For much too long, short-term compromises with religious hotheads and militants have damaged the cause of vigilant secularism that respects India’s uniquely plural, accommodative ethos and rejects any attempt to mix religion with politics. The Congress cannot take the moral high ground because it has struck deals in the past with Hindu and Muslim groups for temporary electoral benefit, be it a Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or a Muslim League in Kerala. If the Gandhi-Khurshid zero tolerance for religious hatred is to be pursued now, then it must extend to any and every perpetrator of communal violence, be it those responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, those who target Kashmiri Pandits, those involved in the post-Ayodhya and post-Godhra violence, or indeed those who kill Sangh workers in Kerala. Else it will be seen as a hypocritical, one-sided political harangue that is only subject to diminishing returns.

Postscript: In a recent interview with this columnist, Khurshid emphasised that he should not be denied his right to free speech simply because of a possible adverse electoral fallout of his comments. But the kind of literary freedom that an author might enjoy is often very different to that of a practising politician. Maybe Khurshid and his ilk need to decide — are they erudite legal scholars seeking intellectually rarefied debates or are they active, hard-nosed politicians first?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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