How can the Congress shed its 'Muslim party' image?
Ever since the A.K. Antony committee identified the Congress's Muslim "appeasement" tag as a major reason for its electoral reverses, the 133-year-old Grand Old Party (GOP) has been unable to formulate a clear-cut policy on the country's largest minority community.
In a transparent attempt to shed the derogatory label given by its opponents, Congress President Rahul Gandhi has engaged in what has been called "temple hopping" and has even expressed a desire to go on a pilgrimage to Kailash Manasarovar, the ultimate pilgrimage destination in Tibet for Hindus.
The chances, however, of these gestures persuading Hindus to turn away in droves from the avowedly pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and support the Congress are minimal. Instead, the latter's new Hindu card may confuse the Muslims.
Rahul's father, Rajiv Gandhi, also made the mistake of following a muddled policy when he opposed the Supreme Court's judgement in favour of a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano, at the behest of Muslim fundamentalists and then ordered the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid to please their Hindu counterparts.
However, the fact that religious overtures do not matter if the nation is seen to be advancing economically was proven in 2009 when the Congress increased its tally of Lok Sabha seats at a time when India was experiencing the fastest-ever reduction of poverty, according to Arvind Subramanian, the former Chief Economic Adviser of the Narendra Modi government.
Yet, only five years later, the Congress suffered its worst ever defeat largely because of the "socialistic" policies favoured by Sonia Gandhi advocated by the crypto-communist members of her National Advisory Council at the expense of economic reforms.
What these ups and downs show is that economy is the key. There is no need either to display an overt devotion to Hinduism or hold a meeting with a select group of Muslim intellectuals, as Rahul Gandhi has done, to find out what their community wants.
It is another matter that at the moment, the Muslims want a sense of security, which was pointed out by former Vice President Hamid Ansari. Their angst is understandable at a time when a Union minister garlands a group charged with killing a Muslim.
But, in the long run, the most palpable sense of safety is provided by a buoyant economy as it fosters a feeling of wellness which few want to disrupt through targeted violence.
The BJP's success in 2014 was the outcome of Modi's appropriation of the economic reforms which the Manmohan Singh government had neglected in its twilight years when, as former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said, the government made the mistake of taking its foot off the accelerator of reforms.
It is patent enough that the BJP would not have fared so well in 2014 if large sections of the Muslims had not voted for it. If they are now feeling uneasy, as Ansari has said, the reasons are not only the sporadic acts of violence of the saffron activists, but also that the reforms have not delivered to the extent they were expected to do.
As the original initiator of the reforms, the Congress's focus should be on ways to rev up the economy and not on photo-ops at temples and powwows with Muslim notables. If the party can generate enough confidence about its ability to do what it alleges the Modi government has failed to do, there will be no need for any kind of religious overtures.
Along with the articulation of development-oriented ideas, the Congress will have to be less apologetic about its pursuit of secularism. While Jawaharlal Nehru's Fabian socialism can be discarded when it doesn't exist even in the fatherland of the creed, his secularism has to be preserved and nurtured.
If the Congress earned the reputation of being a "Muslim party", as Sonia Gandhi has said, it is because of the misapplication of the secular principles as the Shah Bano fiasco showed, for the doctrine does not entail pandering to the Muslim hardliners as was done in the mid-1980s but to the ordinary members of the community.
Their value is immense not because they constitute 14.2 per cent of the population, numbering 172.2 million, second only to Indonesia (209 million) and ahead of Pakistan (167.4 million), but because of their contributions to India's art, architecture, cuisine and culture. Moreover, their interest lies in advancing in step with the rest of the country as M.S. Sathyu's iconic film, "Garam Hawa", depicted in the 1970s.
The Congress, however, made the mistake of seeing the community through the lenses of the bigoted and bearded maulvis (clerics) and abiding by their prejudices. Hence, the "Muslim party" nomenclature because the BJP was quick to capitalise on the GOP's lapses in judgement.
It is time for the Congress to clarify that secularism does not stand for appeasement of minorities but ensuring that they have a place of honour in the country.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)