Is Congress playing the soft Hindutva card in Uttar Pradesh?

Rahul Gandhi's temple visits during his month-long farmer outreach indicate so, but the strategy could alienate the powerful Muslim vote

Anuja
Updated11 Oct 2016
Rahul Gandhi is also making an effort to not alienate the electorally significant Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh that played a decisive role in electing the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party in 2012. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Rahul Gandhi is also making an effort to not alienate the electorally significant Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh that played a decisive role in electing the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party in 2012. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: There is nothing official about it, but recent moves, both by the Congress and its key face in the campaign, Rahul Gandhi, suggest the party is mixing up its usual offering of populism— loan waivers for farmers hit by two successive droughts—with a subtle appeal to the Hindu vote.

If true, this is a risky gambit. If it succeeds, the Congress will be able to resurrect its rainbow coalition—including all castes and religions. Alternatively, it could alienate the powerful Muslim vote with disastrous electoral consequences.

Traditionally, Uttar Pradesh has been split along religious and caste lines. There is nothing in the run-up to the polls to the state assembly next year to suggest that anything has changed.

In an event which was turned into a media spectacle, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president and political heir to Sonia Gandhi, offered prayers at Ayodhya’s Hanuman Garhi temple on 9 September.

Senior party leaders say this was no random visit, by pointing out that it was the first ever by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

Gandhi also held a short closed-door meeting with Mahant Gyan Das, the temple’s chief priest and members of Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (All India Akhara Council), the apex organization of Hindu ascetics.

Further, during his month-long farmer outreach in the state, Gandhi visited at least a dozen temples. His march began from Dudhnath Baba Mandir from Rudrapur.

But it is the visit to the Ayodhya temple that is the most significant. Interestingly, Congress has picked Sheila Dikshit, a Brahmin, to appeal to the upper-caste vote.

In the 16th general election, the Hindu and upper-caste vote went to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ensuring a win for the party in 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats. Clearly, the Congress is keen to make inroads into the BJP vote bank.

“The belief is personal, the outreach is public, but whether it will have a political dividend or not is difficult to say. The Gandhi family has always reached out to the Hindu community particularly in Uttar Pradesh. This time, Sheila Dikshit, a popular Brahmin face, is leading our campaign and naturally the focus is on sending out the right message,” a senior Congress leader from the state said, requesting anonymity.

Officially, the party says that its focus is on members of all communities.

Gandhi is also making an effort to not alienate the electorally significant Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh that played a decisive role in electing the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party in 2012. He visited Kichaucha Sharif Dargah, a Muslim shrine in Ambedkar Nagar and mosques in the state.

Then, that is something the party has always done.

“Something is definitely changing in the Congress’ outreach strategy. In the recent times, the party was seen as a pro-Muslim one. While it did not have an anti-Hindu tag, it did not have a pro-Hindu appeal either. In that sense, there is a big strategic departure. It has realized that you may be secular, but you need to be inclusive in your political outreach. I think it is a smart strategy,” said A.K. Verma, political science professor at Christ Church College, Kanpur.

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