The campaign for the Gujarat Assembly election is becoming sordid with the politics of religious identity dominating headlines. After Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the famous Somnath Temple on Wednesday, the BJP sought to whip up a furore over the Congress leader’s name being entered in its “non-Hindu” visitors’ register. But it simply doesn’t matter how the patently false entry was made — whether someone in Mr Gandhi’s entourage inadvertently filled his name in the wrong register, or a Congress opponent sought to prepare the ground for communalising the campaign with a fabricated entry, that purports to show Mr Gandhi does not see himself as a Hindu but is still visiting temples to woo votes.
Can the leader of a political party, which aspires to form the government in Gujarat by defeating the BJP, not be a non-Hindu, granting for the sake of discussion that Mr Gandhi is not a Hindu? Has India’s political idiom slid that low in the 21st century, when it was refreshingly republican and sturdily secular in the middle of the last century when we ended colonial rule and set off on the journey of democracy despite being poor and illiterate? Could freedom have been gained if all religions, regions and classes not been united in confronting foreign rule?
The RSS-BJP weren’t part of that magnificent saga — of a successful anti-colonial struggle escalating to the path of democracy — and can’t see beyond the valorisation of Hindu chauvinism or Hindu-supremacist idealisation. But it’s sad to see that the Congress, instead of debunking the attempt by its Hindutva opponents to denounce him as non-Hindu (and therefore presumably not qualified to speak for citizens who may be Hindu), is falling into the trap laid for it by its opponents.
Evidently worried that the BJP’s religious attack on Mr Gandhi may influence public perceptions of the bulk of the electorate, a Congress spokesman went to the pernicious extent of announcing that the party’s de facto leader was, in fact, a brahmin who wore the sacred thread. This is a disgrace. So far, the Congress campaign has been run on bread-and-butter issues — in short, on secular questions, on which the BJP’s record is shoddy — and the BJP is trying to deflect it from that strong pitch. By batting on the wicket of religion and caste, the challenger is diluting its own successful campaign. That’s a slippery slope.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled in a recent speech that our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather, had opposed the idea of President Rajendra Prasad inaugurating the renovated Somnath Temple in 1951. The clear implication was that the Nehru-Gandhis are anti-Hindu. But Nehru’s position was clear: those holding State positions shouldn’t take part in public religious functions of any kind. That should be the gold standard in a secular republic....