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Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress President: Challenges and opportunities

By FnF Correspondent | PUBLISHED: 16, Dec 2017, 10:56 am IST | UPDATED: 16, Dec 2017, 11:08 am IST

Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress President: Challenges and opportunities Rahul Gandhi takes charge as Congress president at a crucial time for the party, less than two years before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. His family has run the Congress party for four generations. His father, Rajiv Gandhi; his grandmother Indira Gandhi; and his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru governed India as prime ministers for a combined total of 38 years.

Gandhi, 47, is succeeding his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who has been at the helm of the party for the past 19 years. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty outrivals the Kennedys’ for longevity. Mr. Gandhi is taking over at a time of decline in the fortunes of the Congress party, which suffered a devastating defeat by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 and controls a mere five out of 29 state governments.

With his party’s repeated failures to win elections in the face of the combination of charisma and aggressive Hindu nationalism that fuels Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics, Gandhi has settled on a carefully devised departure from the party’s past by openly and visibly embracing his Hindu identity.

The Congress party has had departures from its commitment to secularism and minority rights in the past — acts of violence against Muslims under its watch and culpability in the 1984 massacres of the Sikh minority — but never before has it abandoned its rhetorical and symbolic commitment to these ideas.

That abandonment became glaringly obvious during the recently concluded election for the Legislative Assembly in the western Indian state of Gujarat — the home state of Modi.
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Before he became prime minister in 2014, Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party to three consecutive and comfortable victories in Gujarat. His move to New Delhi left the BJP in Gujarat with a weak leadership, and the election in Gujarat came as Modi was facing popular criticism over the state of India’s economy and, for the first time, seemed nervous.

Gandhi, who entered politics by winning a seat in the Indian Parliament in 2004, once came across as a reluctant politician and faltered when faced with aggressive challenges by journalists or political opponents. But he has reinvented himself as a more decisive politician in recent months, on occasion deploying acerbic wit to tear into Modi.

Rahul Gandhi led his party’s vigorous campaign in Gujarat. The results will be announced on Monday, but even if the Congress party doesn’t win the election, it is expected to gain seats and improve its standing.

The B.J.P. campaign, marked by Islamophobic speeches, was aimed at intensifying Hindu majoritarian impulses.  Modi even accused several leaders of the Congress party, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of working with Pakistan to defeat his party in Gujarat.

To counter Modi’s portrayal of the Congress party as overly sympathetic to India’s Muslims, Gandhi visited over 25 temples and made it a point to speak at rallies with tilak, the vermilion paste placed on the forehead by the temple priest, prominently displayed. His temple stops were publicized as much as his election meetings and speeches in Gujarat.

The Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, envisaged a state that remained equidistant from all religions while protecting the rights of minorities. In practice this meant that most political leaders visited temples, mosques, gurudwaras and churches with equal ease.

Narendra Modi was the first prominent Indian politician to breach this equivalence. In 2001, he was appointed chief minister of Gujarat. In 2002, his administration largely stood aside as Hindu mobs attacked Muslims after the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire allegedly set by Muslims. The riots cemented Modi’s position as the foremost Hindu nationalist politician, and the state’s Muslims increasingly sought safety in ghettos.

Since Narendra Modi became prime minister, Muslims, who are just under 10 percent of the population in Gujarat and under 15 percent in India, have faced increased marginalization and hostility across the country.

Muslim transporters of cattle are being attacked in the name of cow protection, and Muslim men have been accused of “love jihad,” the term Hindu nationalists have given to a perceived conspiracy by Muslim men to woo, marry and convert Hindu women to Islam.

School textbooks have been amended to include glowing references to regional leaders seen as embodying Hindu resistance to the Muslim domination of the Mughal emperors.

Rather than stand against majoritarian and Islamophobic politics, Gandhi chose to fight the electoral battle on the terms set by the Hindu right. Mr. Gandhi stayed silent about the violence and hostility encountered by India’s Muslim citizens. He essentially agreed with the terms set by Hindu nationalists that to speak of equal citizenship and political rights for India’s 165 million Muslims is no longer acceptable in India.

Gandhi regularly posts on Twitter his critiques of Modi’s economic policies, but he has referred to India’s Muslims just once in over 3,000 tweets spread over two years. There is a problem with this approach: Little separates economic policy under Mr. Modi from economic policy under the Congress party.

The joblessness and lack of economic opportunities that Mr. Gandhi refers to are products of a decade of his Congress party’s rule. He has criticized the Modi government new goods and sales tax, a nationwide tax replacing the business taxes varying from state to state and aimed at converting India into a single market. But it was largely conceived under a Congress government, and its institution is very much a result of structures set up at the time.

Rahul Gandhi’s pitch to voters amounts to the claim that he not only can carry out the same economic policies better than  Modi but also is as good a Hindu as Mr. Modi.

A striking illustration of Gandhi’s strategy was his much publicized visit to the Somnath temple during the Gujarat campaign. It is an important site of Hinduism, originally a ninth-century temple dedicated to Shiva, which was reduced to ruins after being vandalized by medieval Muslim kings. It was rebuilt in 1950 despite the reservations of Mr. Gandhi’s great-grandfather Nehru, who saw it as Hindu revivalism.

Over time, the Somnath temple had become a monument to Hindu injury and rage. Its reconstruction helped inspire Modi’s mentors in the Hindu nationalist movement to demolish the medieval Babri mosque in Ayodhya and eventually replace it with a grand temple for Rama, whose birthplace they believe the mosque was built upon. The demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992 transformed Indian politics and led to the rise of the B.J.P.

After Gandhi’s visit to Somnath, social media was abuzz with news that he had signed the temple register as a non-Hindu. The Congress party responded by stating that not only was Gandhi a Hindu but he also wore the sacred thread that only upper-caste Hindus can wear after an initiation ceremony conducted by a priest. It conveyed the casteist message that the laws of Hinduism don’t even allow Mr. Modi, who comes from a lower caste, to wear the sacred thread Mr. Gandhi wears.

Whether or not the Congress party gains electorally from this Hindu one-upmanship, it is clear that Mr. Modi, much like Margaret Thatcher claiming “New Labour” as her greatest political success, can boast of Mr. Gandhi’s not-so-secular Congress party as his lasting legacy.

Under his leadership, the INC fought tooth-and-nail in the bitterly contested Gujarat election. While exit polls say the Congress will not unseat Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP, they unanimously predict an increase in the party's seat share in the state Assembly.

Whether or not the party wins on counting day, it's true - as one report noted - that the Congress "has rarely shown such energy and enthusiasm on the ground and social media" as it did during the Gujarat election." Under Rahul Gandhi's presidency, the Grand Old Party will look to use that momentum going forward: Next year, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland will elect new assemblies. Three of the four big states (Karnataka being the exception) are ruled by the BJP.