Congress Party’s Dilemma

Responding to Hindutva

Abhinav Pankaj Borbora

The ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India's political landscape is incrementally assuming a proportion that could be characterised as dominance. This makes it imperative for other actors to enter into a sustained consideration of the ascendant party's politics. Notwithstanding the barrage of rhetorical niceties, the central axis around which the politics of BJP revolves continues to be the Hindu question. In light of this, the nature of responses to Hindutva could have considerable implications not only upon the eventual shape of the Hindu question but on the subsequent character of the party system and the polity as well.

The Congress substantially embodies and seeks to represent the central features of the foundational consensus of this polity. It is against this that Hindutva seeks to assert. On this account, the manner in which the Congress handles this question is bound to have a significant bearing on the balance between the foundational consensus and the ascendant idea that seeks to weave its hegemony. Presently, three prominent trajectories could be discerned with regard to the response of the Congress party to Hindutva. Although the third approach does comparatively better than the others.

The first line of response to Hindutva sees it being countered by the notion of Secularism. As tactic or principle, there is a broad section of Congress functionaries who tend to identify themselves with this response. Despite this, contemporary South Asian politics has exposed its limits. Secularism is grounded on a rational logic but the anatomy of this rationality is occidental in character.

This writer has stated elsewhere about it by drawing insights from Ashis Nandy. (Meghalaya Guardian, 2017). Secularism, as it was introduced came to identify modernised Indians and is expressed in an idiom that is alien to the majority. For the masses who are rooted in traditions and have a vernacular worldview, the efficacy of this artefact of western enlightenment remains undermined due to its inadequate potential of engaging with the entrenched belief systems of the masses. Secularism has already exhibited this limitedness for the Congress through the inability of the party to effectively counter the systematic Hinduisation of the Indian electorate. This gets corroborated, as the Congress now has increasingly tended to regress from an unequivocal commitment to secularism in terms of ideology and tactic.

The subsequent line of response attempts to circumvent the secular circumscription by making an expedient use of religion. Paradoxically, this approach mounts a confrontation against the BJP through a parallel endorsement of Hindutva itself. The Congress President is amongst the more prominent of Congress leaders to represent this approach. Such an approach is however erroneous and can lead to deeply distressing outcomes for the party and polity in future. The contradictoriness emerges because the attempt to counteract the BJP through an endorsement of Hindutva concurrently leads to a legitimation of Hindutva over which stands the edifice of the Sangh Parivar. Over the longer run, such an approach could lead to a scenario where even electoral victories of the Congress would become ideological victories of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Gujarat Assembly elections can be cited as a veritable case in point. By this approach of endorsement, Mr Rahul Gandhi had 'played into Modi's trap and visited 27 Hindu temples in Gujarat and also claimed that he was a janevu-wearing Brahmin, not only exhibiting so called "soft Hindutva" but also flaunting casteist notions that could easily alienate the lower castes, particularly Dalits.' (Teltumbde, 2018:11). The Congress President followed a similar template during his Karnataka campaign albeit in a somewhat tempered form. His political trips to the state were blended with a carefully chosen mix of prominent Hindu temples that included the Huligemma Temple in Kopal district, Sringeri Sharada Peetham in Chickmagalur District and the Chamundeshwari temple in Chamundi Hills (India Today, 2018). The concrete origins of such a tendency however precedes Mr Gandhi. Since the 1980s, the Congress has prominently demonstrated an instrumental endorsement of Hinduism. It could be said that the potency acquired by the Hindu-Right during that phase was in no small measure derived from the Congress politics of the period.

Both the approaches discussed so far renders limited efficacy due to the aforestated constraints. In view of the pattern of religious make up of this polity and binaries enforced by Hindutva politics, such approaches respectively serve to alienate the Congress or legitimise the politics it seeks to counteract. A strand of thinking is now visible in the Congress that seeks to overcome this dilemma and the effort deserves sincere appreciation. The third Congress response to Hindutva manifests through a substantial engagement with Hinduism that consists of a philosophical re-reading of political Hinduism. The critique of Hindutva emerges in the course of a scholarly examination of Hinduism. Shashi Tharoor is one of the more serious exponents of this response (Tharoor, 2018). Tharoor juxtaposes Hinduism against Hindutva. By drawing upon the vast philosophical reservoir of foundational Hindu texts, he is able to make a distinction between a spiritual idea called Hinduism and its distorted metamorphosis into a monolithic dogma. By consequence, Tharoor distinguishes between authentic Hinduism and its perversion into Hindutva. A cardinal trait of authentic Hinduism that separates it from its perverted double is the inherent heterogeneity in Hinduism. This is attributable to its polycentric character. ' Since it admits multiple centres of belief and practice, there is no single structure of theological authority or liturgical power. When there is no centre, there is no periphery either' (Tharoor, 2018, p.46). Owing to such a typology, authentic Hinduism is marked by an elasticity and flexibility which makes it less dogmatic.

The scope of this approach, however, is limited to a supplementary role. As an independent–unilateral approach, the aforestated line of response reveals its own antipathies. This response relies upon building an opposition between an authentic and inauthentic Hinduism. There is a problem inherent in this. By the act of juxtaposition, the method produces an unnecessary binary that concedes a leeway to the Hindu right. The purpose of demonstrating the dichotomy is on one hand, to show the distortion subjected upon Hinduism by Hindutva and on the other hand, to pave the way for reclaiming and restoring Hinduism back to its authentic character.

Reclamation or restoration is a form of revivalism and such a tendency necessarily presumes two essential questions—Revive what and Revive how? Any attempt at answering these questions inevitably leads to a certain extent of essentialism. Both Mussolini and Hitler's politics were largely inspired by a desire to restore the purity or past glory of the Roman and Germanic cultures. What is sought to be asserted here is that, Revivalism presupposes fundamentalism, only its degree is debatable. Tharoor's proposition in its bid to restore the authenticity of Hinduism falls at par with the original impulses of Hindu revivalism that gave rise to Hindutva.

It may be contended that Tharoor's method allows sufficient scope to offset rigidities induced by reclamation. For the mode of reclamation involves a re-affirmation of the de-centred basis of Hindu faith and doing away with dogma. Because for Tharoor, 'Hinduism is a civilisation, not a dogma' (Tharoor, 2018, p 9). Despite his best intentions and subtle differences, such a civilisational understanding of Hinduism overlaps with certain notions advocated by V D Savarkar regarding Hindutva. Savarkar writes, ‘Failure to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilisation …when we attempt to investigate into the essential significance of Hindutva, we do not primarily—and certainly not mainly-concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed’ (Savarkar, 1923/2003, p 19).

While discussing this third response, it is also pertinent to recognise another important issue. 'Hinduism' for Savarkar 'is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva' (Savarkar,1923/2003, p.19). From the beginning, there was therefore an attempt to overtly explicate that 'Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism' (Savarkar,1923/2003, p.19). It crucially implies therefore that Hindutva is not identical with the spiritual creed—Hinduism. Instead, Hindutva is a political ideology with its distinctive logic of canonisation, mobilisation and consolidation. Tharoor recognises this insight as well but unfortunately fails to respond correctly to it. He denies the authenticity of Hinduism to Hindutva but is unable to recognise that Hindutva itself does not seek such an unadulterated affiliation. For this reason, the third Congress response remains a pedagogic exercise. The approach immerses itself into significant doctrinal aspects. However, it is unable to enter the political domain which is the actual domicile of Hindutva.

Hindutva is reinforced through the logic of consolidation. A more appropriate response could therefore come through a politics of difference that reaffirms a commitment to multiculturalism and class. This is achieved through an emphasis on pluralities centred around caste, religion, region and equity. Cynics might cite here the verdict secured by the Congress in Karnataka to establish the futility of this line of response. In this regard, it needs to be stated that it would be analytically incorrect to see the slump in the number of seats secured by the Congress as rejection of a politics of heterogeneity and social justice. Instead, the Congress performance in that state would have to be weighed by taking account of the interplay between certain other factors as well. The expenditure incurred by the Congress government on account of the 'Bhagya' schemes amounted to around 40% of the state budget. As surveys by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and DAKSH indicate, for example, a vast majority of the respondents (79%) were happy with the food security scheme of the government (Prabhu, 2018). That this satisfaction did not translate into seats does not imply a rejection of the aforestated form of politics. More plausibly, a counter consolidation of the Vokkaligas and Lingayats as well as organisational weakness produced by defection of key leaders like A H Viswanath and Srinivas Prasad have served to cross cut the consolidation that was building in favour of the Congress.

With regard to difference as a response, it would be prudent to add a qualifier. An advocacy for a politics centred on caste, region or class should not be misinterpreted to sanction a license for triggering instrumental opportunism and division. The Congress is already practising this deformed variant of plurality politics for many years now. Rather, a genuine adherence to this approach would concurrently presuppose evolving firm ideological positions regarding the political categories in question and a principled commitment to the corollary issues. Hence, the 'cosmetic' would have to be replaced by an agenda that contains a programme to radically destabilise hierarchy, structurally realign property and persistently attack the relative deprivation produced by uneven development.

The character of the classical Congress party did indeed correspond to the aforestated prescription in many ways. And it was this genuine heterogeneity that enabled it to be regarded as a platform for championing diverse interests. But the Congress was gradually de-mobilised in the post-independence period as vested interests began to extend their stranglehold over the party. Upward mobility became exclusive to a narrow band of privileged elites, heterogeneity was rendered symbolic and difference was bureaucratically appeased to yield electoral dividends. The circumscribed leadership, servile appeasement tactics and ideological pragmatism not only alienated its heterogeneous base but also provided the interstice through which Hindutva politics emerged on the scene.

As a political ideology, Hindutva builds through a trajectory of assimilation. It is in this regard that the salience of difference as a response should be assessed.

Vol. 50, No.51, June 24 - 30, 2018