Ever since the A.K. Antony Committee identified the Muslim “appeasement” tag as a major reason for its electoral reverses, the 133-year-old Indian National Congress has been struggling to formulate a clear policy on the country’s largest minority community. In an attempt to shed the label given by its opponents, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi has engaged in what has been called “temple hopping” and has also expressed a desire to go to Kailash Manasarovar, the ultimate pilgrimage destination in Tibet for Hindus.
These gestures are unlikely to persuade Hindus to shift their loyalties from the avowedly pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Congress. In fact, the new Hindu card may confuse Muslims. Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, also made the mistake of following a muddled policy when he opposed the Supreme Court’s judgement in favour of a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano, at the behest of Muslim fundamentalists and then ordered the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid to please their Hindu counterparts.
However, religious overtures do not matter if the economy is buzzing. This was proven in 2009 when the Congress increased its tally of Lok Sabha seats at a time when poverty in India declined sharply, according to Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic adviser of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Only five years later, the Congress suffered its worst defeat in general elections largely due to the “socialistic” policies favoured by the then party president, Sonia Gandhi, and advocated by the crypto-Communist members of her National Advisory Council at the expense of economic reforms.
This shows that economy is the key. There is no need for open devotion to Hinduism or hold a meeting with a select group of Muslim intellectuals, as Rahul has done. Muslims want a sense of security, which was pointed out by former vice-president Hamid Ansari. Their angst is understandable at a time when a federal minister garlands a group charged with killing a Muslim. But, in the long run, a sense of safety is best provided by a buoyant economy as it fosters a feeling of wellness. The BJP’s success in 2014 was the outcome of Modi’s appropriation of the issue of economic reforms that the Manmohan Singh government had neglected in its twilight years. The BJP would not have fared so well had large sections of Muslims not voted for it. If they are now feeling uneasy — and sporadic violence by saffron activists are not the only reason behind that — reforms too have fallen short of expectations.
The Congress’ focus should be on ways to rev up the economy and not on photo-ops at temples and hobnobbing with Muslim notables. If the party can instil confidence in the public about its ability to carry out the programmes, which it accuses the Modi government of failing to deliver, there will be no need for religious overtures.
Besides articulating development strategies, the Congress will have to be less apologetic about its pursuit of secularism. While Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism can be discarded, his secularism has to be preserved and nurtured.
If the Congress earned the reputation of being a “Muslim party”, as Sonia has said, it is due to the poor application of secular principles as the Shah Bano fiasco showed. The doctrine does not entail pandering to the Muslim hardliners as in the mid-1980s, but to the ordinary members of the community. Their value is immense not because they constitute 14.2 per cent of the population — numbering 172.2 million, second only to Indonesia (209 million) and ahead of Pakistan (167.4 million) — but because of their contributions to India’s art, architecture, cuisine and culture. Moreover, their interest lies in advancing in-step with the rest of the country, as M.S. Sathyu’s iconic film Garam Hawa had depicted in the 1970s.
The Congress, however, made the mistake of seeing the community through the lenses of the bigoted and bearded clerics and abiding by their prejudices. Hence, the “Muslim party” tag. It is time the Congress clarifies that secularism does not stand for appeasement of minorities, but ensuring that they have a place of honour in the country.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst in India.