In September 2016, the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi celebrated late prime minister Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary by inaugurating a photo exhibition on her life at Swaraj Bhavan, the house where she was born in (what was still called) Allahabad.
As a thought experiment, let us imagine how Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have commemorated Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary if he was the Congress president. We are talking here of commemorations by party, not government. It would be much more than an exhibition.
The consecration of the Ram Mandir on 22 January will mark a historic defeat of secular politics. We have come to this pass because secular political parties completely surrendered their ideological positions. They did not become ideologically the same as the Bharatiya Janata Party, but left their own ideological fort unguarded. As a result, they appear to have no ideology whatsoever today.
The BJP’s delegitimisation of secularism — the word and ideology both — made secular parties defensive about it. They came to a consensus that the best way to save secularism was through other means. In 2004, the Congress came to power with a coalition after doing an election campaign about the “aam aadmi”, the common man.
In 2009, it made impressive gains after having delivered a rural employment guarantee law, a farm loan waiver and some good governance measures such as a right to information law.
This strengthened the consensus that welfarism was enough for secularism to win. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how wrong that was.
Joining the melody
In ten years of the UPA government, and even today through its state governments, the Congress makes barely any investment in ideology. One exception was the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which was an indirect way of arguing in defence of secularism, pluralism and harmony. It therefore achieved the purpose of consolidating the Congress party’s core voter base.
With the exception of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the last time the Congress did any impactful investment in ideology was the “Mile Sur Mere Tumhara” song that the Rajiv Gandhi government aired on national television in 1988. Those who grew up watching it remember it even today.
It is not very difficult to wage a persuasive campaign on ideology. After India’s independence, Partition violence and exchange of populations had left religious tempers flared up. Looking back at it today, many wonder how secularism survived the biggest interreligious carnage in the history of South Asia.
Flying the flag
Part of the answer is that the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Congress party under his leadership, led a “unity in diversity” public campaign. This campaign combined showed secularism as pluralism and sold it with the Kool-Aid of nationalism.
India was diverse, and India was united. What outsiders like the departing British colonisers saw as India’s weakness was co-opted as its strength.
There’s no reason why secular parties can’t do the same today: argue that pluralism, diversity and equality are key elements of Indian nationalism. It is part of our national identity. Doing so will need more than just an exhibition, and if doing a cross-country march, it will need to use nationalism more strongly.
Nationalism is the glue that can bind anything: just see how the BJP is seeking to merge Indian and religious nationalism. Or see how ‘Mile Sur Mere Tumhara’, a song about diversity, evokes patriotic fervour.
How many people know that Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, 19 November, is officially National Integration Day? Not many. That’s because the Congress never celebrated it in the way the Modi government has created an International Yoga Day.
The lack of ceremony, the lack of pomp and show are seen as virtues by the intellectual-minded leadership of secular parties. They amount of an absence of public engagement.
The ‘National Integration Day’ could have been renamed as something less mouthful, say Diversity Day, or Vibhinnta Diwas in Hindi. Every district of India could have been made to celebrate India’s diversity with a mela, a public fair. Instead, all we can have is a photo exhibition in a corner of Uttar Pradesh.
Championing the Constitution
The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 saw ordinary people carrying placards with the image of the Preamble to the Constitution of India. The Preamble emphasises secularism, unity, equality, fraternity. As the protests died, the power of the Preamble as a political symbol was forgotten.
The use of the Preamble, along with the national flag and image of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and others were everywhere in the anti-CAA protests. With the use of these symbols, the unorganised protesters were again laying claim to nationalism as a way of defending secularism.
The lesson was clear: secular parties could also use Constitutional nationalism. They also need to not give up on symbols and icons of the freedom movement.
Multiplying by 1.4 billion
To effectively use symbols and icons, to wage a campaign for diversity or secularism, the key is scale. If all you can think of is a photo exhibition, it’s a lost cause.
Thinking at scale means installing statues. Narendra Modi built the world’s tallest statue of Sardar Patel, a Congress leader appropriated by the BJP. When was the last time we heard of any non-BJP party building statues? Again, it is seen as wasteful and unnecessary. Congress leaders would rather create a new welfare law.
This country should have had public parks dedicated to the Preamble, monuments to the Constitution. Why couldn’t the UPA have built a large monument to unity in diversity, or just Gandhi’s non-violence, and asked people from across India to donate farming instruments to be put in the statue? That’s what Modi did with Sardar Patel’s ‘Statue of Unity’.
Ideas have to be made tangible with the power of symbols, icons, statues, festivals. Just how many Congress leaders write books is inversely proportional to how many of them think in terms of mass public engagement at scale.