State Assembly Elections: Long Before the BJP, the Congress Had Perfected the Art of Communal Politics

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It is easy to consider the BJP a communal force, but public memory is short. It would serve us well to remember that a series of communal riots – in Hasanpura, in Muzaffarnagar, and in Delhi in 1984 – took place even under the Congress regime. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi had a key role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

December 11 will be a day the Congress will remember. Congress, India’s Grand Old Party has bounced back this election season, partly because of anti-incumbency and partly because of its outreach programmes – the promise of jobs and subsidies to farmers – and its newfound love for soft Hindutva. That “turn” should surprise absolutely no one. In fact, the party has come a long way because of it.

To understand this approach, let’s take a step into history. In the late decades of the 1800s, the Indian National Congress had a social reform arm – the Indian (National) Social Conference, which was spearheaded by educated reformers Mahadev Govind Ranade and Raghunath Rao. The goal of the Conference was to eradicate social evils like child marriage and other evil customs from Hindu society.

For some time the Congress and the Conference worked as two spectra of one common activity and they held their annual sessions in the same pandal. But over time the two axes developed into two factions: a Political Reform Party and a Social Reform Party, between whom there raged a fierce rivalry. The question at the heart of the debate was whether social reforms should precede political reforms. For a decade, the forces were evenly balanced and the battle was fought without victory to either side.

It was however evident that the fortunes of Social Conference were ebbing fast.


Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, in his speech intended (but not actually delivered for its incendiary nature) for the 1936 Annual Conference of Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, describes the decimation of Social Conference: “The gentlemen who presided over the sessions of the Social Conference lamented that the majority of the educated Hindus were for political advancement and indifferent to social reform… This indifference, this thinning of its ranks was soon followed by active hostility from the politicians… Thus in course of time the party in favour of political reform won and the Social Conference vanished and was forgotten.”

But over time the two axes developed into two factions: a Political Reform Party and a Social Reform Party, between whom there raged a fierce rivalry.

Back then, Congress won the political battle over Social Conference and the British Crown. India was now independent, but freedom from social evils entrenched in society was nowhere in sight. New laws were put in place and Congress governments kept bolstering the notions of caste upliftment. But the ground reality was different.

The India that presented a united front against the Brits, was very different from the India that would come to be divided along communal lines. Partition created the fault lines that  came to the fore once again in 1984. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, thousands of Sikhs were killed in a pogrom orchestrated by the Congress party. Kamal Nath, slated to be the new CM of Madhya Pradesh, was complicit in the caranage. Nath was reportedly present at Delhi’s Rakab Ganj Gurudwara, where two Sikhs were burnt alive. A book extract published in Scroll points out that journalist Sanjay Suri, in his report and affidavit before the Misra Commission, found that Kamal Nath was “controlling the crowd” which he said was “looking to him for directions”.

How different then is this Congress leadership from its BJP counterparts who are accused of allowing the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat? If the BJP has Maya Kodnani, the Congress has Nath.  

In fact, it is now commonplace to consider the BJP a communal force, but it would serve us well to remember that a series of communal riots took place even under the Congress regime – Hasanpura, Maliana, Muzaffarnagar. The Grand Old Party’s hands are also stained with Muslim blood, something that senior leader Salman Khurshid has confessed to.

Partition created the fault lines that came to the fore once again in 1984.

Though it professed secularism, the Congress was originally a Hindu party, and even under Nehru, it did everything it could to retain the trust of Hindus. “The 1948 Sunderlal Report which established the massacre of around 40,000 Muslims following the takeover of Hyderabad State by India remained under wraps on Nehru’s orders for decades,” Uday Balakrishnan points out in this opinion piece.

Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi, a neophyte in politics, fostered Hindutva by persuading the then UP chief minister Bir Bahadur Singh to open the Ram Janmabhoomi lock in 1986, ushering in a dark year in the history of India’s secularism. In the second volume of his memoir The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, former president Pranab Mukherjee called this an “error of judgement” by Rajiv Gandhi. This was the birth of temple politics, an idea that the BJP later ran with. This idea of Hindu consolidation deleteriously escalated the mass movement of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the shockwaves of which can be felt even today.

The Congress’s version of secularism has for long been flawed. And in all of this, the party mastered the art of appeasement politics. The Shah Bano case and the enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 is a prime example. As an editorial in The Hindu states, “The Congress Government, panicky in an election year, caved in under the pressure of the orthodoxy. It enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The most controversial provision of the Act was that it gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance for the period of iddat (about three months) after the divorce, and shifted the onus of maintaining her to her relatives or the Waqf Board. The Act was seen as discriminatory as it denied divorced Muslim women the right to basic maintenance which women of other faiths had recourse to under secular law.”

The Congress’s version of secularism has for long been flawed. And in all of this, the party mastered the art of appeasement politics.

Thus the Congress not only successfully appeased Muslim orthodoxy, but also opened all the gateways for Congress to become a “Muslim party”. The party captured Muslim vote banks in addition to prefixed Hindu votes. This was an immediate economical approach to stop Muslim vote-flow to the rising regional Muslim parties. However, this led many upper-caste Hindu supporters to leave the cadre. As a result the Congress’s popularity in the Hindi heartland dwindled.

But looks like after all of this, the Grand Old Party is back to its grand old ways. After decades of appeasing the minority, the Congress has now decided to counter BJP’s Hindu Rashtra dream by peddling its own version of soft Hindutva. Rahul Gandhi’s pre-election “temple run” and “Gotra game” are testimony to the fact that the Congress is willing to restore its Hindu credentials. We saw the Congress chief turn into a pious politician this election season, visiting mandirs and posing with priests. His gotra became a matter of political debate. If that were not enough, the Congress leadership even spoke out in favour of Sabarimala.

The message is loud and clear – we are not anti-Hindu. The party’s comeback in the Hindi heartland is proof that no one is really doubting their Hindu Brahmin credentials. The Congress is doing what the BJP has done, just peddling their version of Hindutva as softer and friendlier.

This propensity to imitate was the subject of a scientific study by French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who formulated the seminal social theory. Tarde’s system consists of three central elements: imitation, opposition, and adaptation tending. According to Tarde, imitation flows from the higher to the lower or, “Given the opportunity, nobility will always and everywhere imitate its leaders, its kings or sovereigns, and the people likewise, given the opportunity, its nobility.”

The message is loud and clear – we are not anti-Hindu.

And so it is that most Indian political parties are mere replicas of the Congress. They grew seeing Congress and conceptualising its tactics to propagate ideologies by mobilising volunteers divided along caste, creed, and dogma. The year 2002 is an imitation of 1984. And the Congress, by declaring Rahul as a “janeu-dhari Brahmin”, is just imitating the ruling party’s Hindu pride agenda.

The Congress strategy might be dubbed at beating the BJP at its own game, but let’s not forget they are the OG Hindu party, the champions of divisive and tactical politics. But really, what the people of India is not Hindutva, be it the BJP or the Congress’s version – what we need is a return to secularism and our Constitutional values.