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Rahul Gandhi’s soft Hindutva gambit

Author: Minhaz Merchant
Publication: DNA India.com
Date: September 13, 2018
URL:      https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-rahul-gandhi-s-soft-hindutva-gambit-2662424/amp?__twitter_impression=true

The Congress’ 2019 poll strategy is to position the party president as a liberal but devout Hindu

Ensconced in Kailash Mansarovar last week, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Shiva is the Universe.” The tweet drove home two messages: One, that Rahul’s discovery of his Hindu Brahmin roots continues apace; two that if Kailash Mansarovar has Internet connectivity to enable tweeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s digital initiatives have borne fruit.

Rahul’s Hindu tilt began with a visit to the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand. He doubled down by temple-hopping during the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2017 and then again during the Karnataka state elections earlier this year. The Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage was part of the Congress’ 2019 strategy to position Rahul as a liberal but devout Hindu who eschews hard Hindutva but is willing to cohabit with its softer version.

Soft Hindutva is hard to define. Like Hinduism itself, it is elastic and can be moulded into any shape you want. One shape, pre-election, another post-election, and yet another when overseas. That is why soft Hindutva is Rahul’s ideology of choice. It can be bent to appeal to a broad swathe of India’s 80 per cent Hindu electorate.

But doesn’t soft Hindutva risk alienating the Congress’ loyal minority vote bank? Not really. Muslims understand Rahul’s playbook. They wink and nudge each other that this is just Rahul’s way of getting the extra Hindu vote share to stop the BJP from returning to power in 2019. After the polls, they say, Rahul will return to his Hinduphobic, Islamophilic self.

Christians too are sanguine. They’ve experienced enough of the Congress’ pro-Christian tilt over the years. They shrug away Rahul’s dalliance with soft Hindutva. Sonia Gandhi, a staunch Catholic, remains a source of comfort. For the Congress therefore, Rahul’s soft Hindutva strategy is risk-free. But is it? Not necessarily. Minority votes are fungible. Muslim women in particular may migrate to either the BJP over its strong stand on triple talaq or simply opt for NOTA.

In a close election that the 2019 Lok Sabha poll promises to be, three issues will decide the outcome: caste, jobs and development. By stressing his Brahmin caste credentials, Rahul could be skating on thin ice. The Brahmin vote pan-India is around five per cent. It can tip the balance in a few key constituencies but the Congress’ recent public declaration that the party has “a Brahmin DNA” could prove counter-productive. OBCs and SC/STs may well move further away from the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where caste plays a big electoral role, antagonising OBC, EBC and SC/ST voters could harm the Congress’ mahagathbandhan partners — BSP and SP in Uttar Pradesh and RJD in Bihar. It also opens the door for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to play his OBC card in rural India where this election will be decided.

Rahul will attack Modi on jobs and farmers’ distress. The BJP has much to be worried about on both fronts. It will counter the attack with its development record. Though patchy, the Modi government has some impressive achievements to showcase. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) will gradually bring bank and power sector NPAs down to reasonable levels. Before 2014, NPAs were hidden by lax RBI regulations. They were tightened in 2015. NPAs were recognised rather than rolled over, creating a spike in bad loans. These loans were bad pre-2014 but were treated as recoverable and not recognised as NPAs.

The Modi government’s other schemes too have gained traction: infrastructure, financial inclusion, rural electrification, sanitation, entrepreneurship, universal health insurance and direct transfer of subsidies. But the BJP has made several missteps along the way. For example, progress on tax reform and PSU divestment has been disappointing. Hamhanded over-regulation by SEBI has alienated investors. Of the three key issues on which the 2019 Lok Sabha election will be decided – caste, jobs and development – the Congress though has an edge only on jobs. Its Brahmin overreach may backfire and its soft Hindutva repositioning may not seduce enough moderate Hindus to vote for it.

The other worry for the Congress is the opposition within the Opposition. TRS chief K. Chandrashekar Rao has already sounded the poll bugle. Calling Rahul “India’s greatest buffoon” in a press conference last week does not guarantee he will support the NDA. KCR enjoys playing kingmaker. By holding an early Telangana assembly election rather than with the scheduled Lok Sabha poll in 2019, he hopes to sweep the state and be in a position to bargain with whichever alliance forms the government at the Centre in 2019. The TRS is confident of winning 16 of the state’s 17 Lok Sabha seats next year. They could tip the balance in a close election.

Rahul knows he can’t afford to let Modi have another five-year term. The economy is likely to boom from 2020 onwards as structural reforms start paying dividends. Stalled corruption cases against Congress leaders will meanwhile ripen. Party funds (though not its leadership’s), already stressed, could nosedive. Five more years of Modi can eviscerate the Congress.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election is an existential battle for the Congress. Rahul is therefore prepared to delay his prime ministerial ambitions in favour of a Mahagathbandhan leader to ensure that Modi is kept out. Proxy PMs can be handled (as Deve Gowda and IK Gujral were in 1996-98). Modi can’t.

- The writer is author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century
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