Long before Rahul Gandhi went temple hopping in Gujarat in a well crafted strategy to woo back the majority community and shed the image that the Congress is pro-Muslim, former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi had played the soft Hindutva card. Indeed, if any Congress leader can be accused of attempting to appease the majority community or the hardcore Hindutva brigade, it was him! But in opening the locks of the Babri Masjid, the Congress stepped outside the lakshmanrekha of the party's much professed secularism. The move boomeranged, paving the way for the BJP to storm on to the national centre-stage.
Rahul Gandhi's temple hopping in Gujarat, which has had better success, is clearly borrowed from the same saffron copybook. The reason isn’t far to seek. With the rise of Narendra Modi, the BJP and the saffron fringe elements began working towards making Hindutva "The Great Nationalist Ideology," with it's anti-Pakistan chants and its cries of nationalism that pushed the “secular” Congress into a corner. A senior BJP leader, who refused to be identified said; "over the last couple of years the campaign to paint Congress as anti-majority has intensified and it did pay dividends." He explained that "consolidation of the Hindu vote bank is BJP's ticket to victory and the party will not and cannot deviate from this agenda. We have always fashioned ourselves as a Hindu revivalist party." Come 2019, the BJP is expected to be ready with its greatest Hindutva card - the construction of the Ram temple.
The UP assembly polls were the dry run where the BJP artfully blended Hindutva rhetoric with Vikas - development. Yogi Adityanath, the UP chief minister's tough line on cow slaughter, crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses were clear signals of BJP's rapid steps towards consolidation of the Hindu vote bank, not just in UP but across the nation. Hindu-born or not, Rahul Gandhi saw the BJP leaders repeatedly remind the nation of his "Italian mother." At the height of the Gujarat campaign, Rahul Gandhi's visit to the Somnath temple and his name in the entry register meant for non-Hindu saw BJP leaders taking to the TV channels questioning Rahul Gandhi's religious faith. BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy declared Rahul Gandhi "a Christian who goes to church every Sunday."
For Gandhi, already reeling from repeated electoral failures, there was a swift realization that secularism was no longer a card that worked to the party's advantage. With the “Hindu awakening” sweeping the nation, Rahul Gandhi took a sharp right turn. At the filing of nomination for the party president's post Rahul Gandhi sported a prominent “tilak” on his forehead. He was seen wearing rudraksh beads, During the Somnath controversy, Congress leaders described the Congress scion as a “janeu-dhaari” Hindu”.
The arrival of the "janeu-dhari" Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat, encroached into BJP’s space with his right of centre moves, rattling the saffronites. Apprehending a division of the Hindu vote bank, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley scoffed at the new Rahul. "The BJP has always been seen as a pro-Hindutva party. So if an original is available, why would one prefer a clone?” he asked.
But in his new avatar, Rahul kept his nerve, refusing to be baited while continuing with his temple runs. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi played the polarizing card by accusing former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh of “conspiring” with Pakistan to influence Gujarat polls, Rahul and his party did not once raise the issue of the Gujarat riots through the entire campaign. The party also quickly scotched rumours about Ahmed Patel's candidature as a chief minister.
Rahul Gandhi visited around 30 temples during the months-long election campaign held for 182 assembly seats in the state. When asked whether his visits to the temples were political, Rahul of course said: "Is it wrong to go to a temple? Jahan mauka milta hai vahan mandir jaata hoon, Kedarnath bhi gaya tha, vo kya Gujarat mein hai? (Whenever I got the opportunity I have visited temples, have been to Kedarnath as well. Is that in Gujarat?)," adding "whenever I went to a temple I just prayed for a ‘Sunehra Bhavishya’ for the people of Gujarat, a better development here." In the end, his temple did bring "seat blessings" to his party. But as a Congress insider pointed out, the visits to the temples were part of a strategy to woo back the Hindu voters without upsetting the minority vote bank, which sees BJP as "enemy number one." The Congress spin doctors are of the opinion that there was no electoral loss in playing the Hindutva card as for the minorities Congress “will always be the only alternative.”
This is why, in the 2018 poll bound states Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh - due for polls in the latter half of 2018 - where Muslims are virtually invisible, Rahul Gandhi will not make any overt outreach to the community and continue to push into the BJP’s Hindutva space. As per 2011 census, Muslim population in Madhya Pradesh is 6.57 percent, 9.1 percent in Rajasthan and only 2.02 percent in Chhattisgarh. In these states, Rahul Gandhi is expected to repeat the Gujarat template and push the Hindutva card. The party also has the advantage of huge anti-incumbency factor. In poll bound Karnataka with nearly 13 percent Muslims, party insiders revealed that the Hindutva strategy could vary a “little.” Rahul will visit the darghas in Bengaluru as well as Hindu temples in Karnataka. The BJP, post the close fight in Gujarat, will raise it's Hindutva pitch, by upping the ante on the government's decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti, and celebrating Onake Obavva, a legendary Dalit woman who died fighting his father, Hyder Ali, when he invaded the Chitradurga Fort.
Except, the anti-Tipu rhetoric of the party stalled a bit, as an old photograph of former BJP Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar attending a Tipu Sultan event surfaced! Either way, Rahul Gandhi’s newfound Hindutva to counter BJP’s aggressive Hindutva will remain one of the major fulcrums of Congress’ electoral strategy in 2019.