News Analysis| Congress’s dilemma of articulating the question of religious identity

Party leader Rahul Gandhi is keen on taking the fight to the BJP’s own turf of Hindutva politics, seeking to distinguish it from the larger Hindu identity.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s sharp attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ‘Hindu’ credentials last week has put the spotlight back on his own and his party’s dilemma in articulating the question of religious identity.

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It could be a matter of debate whether or not the Congress’s attempt to recast its image will work but it is clear that Mr. Gandhi is keen on taking the fight to the BJP’s own turf of Hindutva politics, seeking to distinguish it from the larger Hindu identity.

“ ‘Ye kis prakar ke Hindu hain. Ye jhoote Hindu hain. Ye Hindu dharm ka prayog karte hain, ye dharm ki dalali karte hain, magar ye Hindu nahin hain’ (What kind of Hindus are they? They are fake Hindus. They use the Hindu religion, they broker the religion, but they are not Hindus,” Mr. Gandhi declared at a convention of the All India Mahila Congress on September 15.

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On September 10, a day after visiting the sacred Mata Vaishno Devi shrine, Mr. Gandhi invoked his lineage of being a Kashmiri Pandit while addressing a rally of Congress workers in Jammu and greeted them by chanting “Jai Mata Di”.

In August too, during a visit to Kashmir, the Congress leader also performed a puja at the Mata Kheer Bhawani temple, a revered shrine of the Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ganderbal district.

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But it is always a tightrope walk for Mr. Gandhi to express his faith publicly yet project himself as an ‘inclusive’ leader that would make him different from his rivals.

During the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election, when Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala referred to Mr. Gandhi as ‘janeu dhaari’ Brahmin (sacred thread-wearing Brahmin), Mr. Gandhi is reported to have expressed his disapproval.

Yet, in Jammu, he referred to himself as a “Kashmiri Pandit who would help his fellow Pandit brothers”.

He visited the Kheer Bhawani temple but made it a point to include the Hazratbal shrine in his Srinagar itinerary.

Attack on RSS

At the Mahila Congress convention while expounding on the meaning of Goddesses Lakshmi and Durga, he attacked the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and V.D. Savarkar for propagating a ‘militant’ ideology.

“The BJP-RSS people say they are a Hindu party. In the last 100-200 years, if anyone has understood the Hindu religion in the best way and made it his practice, it is Mahatma Gandhi. We believe in this and so do the BJP-RSS people. So, if Mahatma Gandhi understood the Hindu religion and spent his whole life understanding it, then why did the RSS ideology pump three bullets in his chest,” asked the Congress leader.

While his attack on the ideology of Savarkar and the RSS has often riled the party’s unlikely ally in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena, the BJP has often accused Mr. Gandhi of being a ‘chunaavi Hindu’, someone who remembers his Hindu credentials only at the time of elections.

With Assembly election in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh scheduled early next year and Gujarat later in the year, one could explain that Mr. Gandhi’s Hindu assertion is, perhaps, political.

But people close to the Congress leader claim that it is more about “wresting back” the political narrative from the BJP and argue that Hinduism, in contrast to the political ideology of Hindutva, has space for everyone, believers and non-believers.

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