Having failed to delineate a cogent and credible line on secularism, the Congress will have to articulate a new position to find its way back into political reckoning.
For a start, the party will have to realise that its efforts to delink religion from politics, or the church from the state—the essence of secularism—went offtrack because it identified the 'church' too closely with Hinduism and did not pay enough attention to keep Islam also at a distance from the state.
Because of this tactical error, the Congress played into the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which made no secret of its closeness to Hinduism and accused the Congress of being partial to Islam for the sake of Muslim votes. This is a factor which A.K. Antony, among others in the Congress, acknowledged in a report on the party's defeat in the last general election.
However, the report banked on run-of-the-mill explanations for the party's setback such as infighting, demoralisation among the workers, the absence of pre-poll alliances, the party's corrupt image and communal polarisation orchestrated by the BJP.
While much of this may be true, the report did not spell out how the Congress could recover its earlier prime position. A suggestion which has been floated in recent weeks is that the Congress can try "soft" Hindutva as a means of wooing voters. This is a line which has long been prevalent in the Congress with V.N. Gadgil (1930-2001) being one of the early proponents.
For Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, however, "for Congress, peddling 'BJP lite' is like Coke Zero. It will get us zero". Instead, the former minister of state for external affairs wants his party to be demonstratively uncompromising on secularism.
Apart from the pursuit of secularism in its pristine form which keeps religion, in all its manifestations, at a far distance from governance, what the Congress can do is to reboot itself as a party of the 21st century which rejects the superstitious medievalism of the saffron brotherhood with its propagation of a milk-drinking Hindu deity—Ganeshji doodh pi rahe hain—or the conjuration of a patently fictitious past when Indians were said to have invented everything from stem cell research to cars to planes to television, or astounding claims about cows exhaling oxygen and cow dung providing protection against nuclear radiation.
To rescue the country from such outrageous, antediluvian ideas, the Congress has to present itself as the exact opposite—a forward-looking, progressive party committed to the development of a rational, scientific temperament so that the common man will not be prone to sectarianism based on hate and prejudice.
To achieve this objective, the Congress itself will have to shed some of its present inhibitions such as a disinclination to take a forthright stand on crucial issues of the day. These include the country's economic direction to which the merit-versus-quotas debate is related and the question of bans.
To start with the last, the Congress will have to set its face against bans of all kinds: on books, acknowledging that it made a mistake in banning Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' in 1988 (P. Chidambaram has done so, though only in 2015); on films; on liquor; and on beef. It has to be remembered that the Congress was the first to ban beef in Madhya Pradesh in 1955 when it was in power and the BJP was not even formed. Moreover, even today it is in favour of a nationwide ban on beef, as its senior general secretary Digvijay Singh has said, in line with Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat's views.
Yet, this pandering to the Hindu cause has led it nowhere, just as its propagation of 'socialism'—subsided food under the Food Security Act and doles for the rural unemployed under MNREGA—has been of little help to the party.
The reason is the inherent insincerity in these gimmicks which are seen as populist, vote-catching manoeuvres by an outfit clutching at straws to hold on to power. In contrast, the steps by the BJP against books such as Wendy Doniger's tract on Hinduism or on beef are seen as driven by conviction even if they are ill-conceived in the eyes of the liberals.
The latter cannot but be disappointed by the palpable cynicism of Jawaharlal Nehru's party. What is worse for the Congress is that these duplicitous ploys do not deceive anyone. Even if the Congress calls for a nationwide ban on beef, the political advantage will still be the BJP's just as Rajiv Gandhi's shilanyas (foundation-laying) for the Ram temple did not fetch the Congress any votes in the 1989 election.
Instead of indulging in such deceit, the Congress will have to underline its adherence to the principles of liberalism which mean a free, open society where there are no constraints on what a person reads or eats, or who he or she chooses as a life partner.
# Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org