Is Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s newfound ability to play to the gallery by eagerly endorsing religious symbols and effortlessly criticizing Narendra Modi and Amit Shah the sign that he is war-ready?
The refreshingly aggressive Congress president's new avatar can energise the party and lure the voters but what stands out is his overt endorsement of Hindu religious symbols.
The Congress says their president is batting for inclusive Hinduism against BJP’s divisive Hindutva. On what the BJP contemptuously calls Rahul’s “politically driven temple run”, Congress communication in-charge Randeep Surjewala says it won’t stop.
“What’s wrong in visiting temples or other religious places?” he asks. After all, Rahul isn’t the first Congress chief to visit temples. Rahul’s grandmother, late prime minister Indira Gandhi, used to visit temples and always wore a rudraksha necklace. His father Rajiv Gandhi too sought blessings at various temples. “Why is there such a fuss over Rahul’s religiosity? He visited temples earlier too. It’s just that, with Hindutva becoming central to the country’s political discourse, Rahul’s visits are being noticed and talked about,” says Surjewala. “Rahul wants to be the representative of real India—assimilative, inclusive and pluralistic. Unlike Hindutva, which the RSS propagates, Hinduism as a philosophy respects all religions.”
In fact, when Rahul visited Sharadamba temple in Sringeri in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur on March 21, he was following in the footsteps of his grandmother. In 1978, the year after the Congress was ousted from power at the Centre in the general elections following the end of the Emergency, Indira contested the Chikmagalur bypolls. That’s when she sought the blessings of the priests at the temple and went on to win—a victory that revived her political career.
Congress leaders candidly admit that in Rahul’s case as well, there is expectation of electoral gains to be made in the process. One of the younger leaders working closely with Rahul recalls an animated discussion with him before the Gujarat polls last year about the reasons why the BJP won election after election. “The ground reports show that the middle class, traders, professionals and even students are unhappy with the Modi-led government. So what makes the BJP win? The unpleasant answer was the Hindutva card the party plays so well. There is nothing except the politics of polarisation,” the young leader tells Outlook. That was the time when Rahul became convinced about the need for demonstrative Hinduism.
“He believes the BJP doesn’t have a copyright on Hinduism,” the leader continues. “RG makes it a point to remind us that we should not allow the BJP to appropriate Hinduism or the colour saffron, or to project itself as a saviour of Indian culture.” Indeed, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi has been seen sporting shades of orange more than once. Even Sonia Gandhi recently admitted the BJP had managed to convince people that the Congress is a “Muslim party”. She said they all visited temples earlier too, but are doing it more publicly now because of the narrative that the BJP has built.
Rahul’s invocation of the Mahabharata at the plenary, and later at a Mangalore rally, was in the same vein. The Gandhi scion used the same symbolism of mythology and scriptures that the BJP uses. “The difference is that he uses the symbols to denote pluralism and convey the oneness of India, while the BJP has used them to create divisions,” says Surjewala. And as senior leader Digvijay Singh puts it, “pluralism, secularism and social justice are articles of faith for the Congress, from the time of Mahatma Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi”.
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