Signs of a revival

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

The Congress(I) is likely to come up with a better performance in Uttar Pradesh, thanks to a decisive shift in the Muslim community's electoral preferences.

ON April 27, speaking at a public meeting in Bakshi ka Talab on the outskirts of Lucknow, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee posed a question to the Muslim community of Uttar Pradesh: "Why are you changing colour and flocking to the Congress now though the party has not taken any new or concrete measures to deserve a renewal of faith?" By any yardstick, the fervent query should rate as the most decisive indicator of a revival of the political fortunes of the Congress(I) in India's most populous State.

What increases the significance of the question is not merely the personality who asked it, but also its timing. The first round of polling in Uttar Pradesh was completed on April 26 and naturally Vajpayee might have got reports about the choice of the voters. Moreover, as was evident to observers of the political scene, the Prime Minister might have been told that a sizable segment of Muslim voters had shown a clear and open preference for Congress(I) candidates in several constituencies.

A broad pointer to the size and scale of the tide among Muslim voters in favour of the principal Opposition party came in the form of a public appeal issued by the All India Milli Council (AIMC), a confederation of various Muslim organisations. It called upon the community to support Congress(I) candidates in as many 12 of the 32 seats that went to the polls on April 26. More important, Muslim voters were supporting the Congress(I) in so many constituencies for the first time in 15 years.

By all indications, it was this scale of preference that impelled Vajpayee to take notice of the phenomenon and refer to it in his speech. But would the Prime Minister have actually thought that he could stem the tide among the Muslim voters simply by asking why the community was once again turning towards the Congress(I)? The answer has to be in the negative, especially considering the fact that his political persona has, more often than not, been characterised by an advocacy of the unambiguously anti-Muslim ideology of Hindutva.

It is in such a context that the unsaid political dimensions of the question become important. According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a former legislator and political analyst who was a close associate of Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, Vajpayee's statement reflects a larger understanding of Uttar Pradesh's political history of the past 15 years and indirectly expresses the Bharatiya Janata Party's apprehensions about losing its own core support base. Tyagi is certain that if the Congress(I) starts winning back the minority votes, upper-caste Brahmins, who are predominantly with the BJP now, and sections of Dalits will follow suit sooner than later.

The projection is rooted in the perception that the grand rainbow coalition - a social combination of castes and communities such as Brahmins, Thakurs, Muslims and Dalits, commonly known as the BTMH factor - that helped the Congress gain repeated electoral successes in North India right from the early days of Independence disintegrated once Muslims started moving out of it. Although the party suffered minor setbacks in keeping the rainbow coalition intact in the 1960s when peasant communities such as Jats, under the leadership of Charan Singh who founded the Lok Dal, and Yadavs moved away from it, that had not caused the kind of disintegration it suffered in the 1980s and 1990s when Muslims drifted apart.

A large number of social and political activists across the State and observers of the socio-political scene tend to agree with this assessment. Mohammed Yunus Siddiqui, a Faizabad-based lawyer and prominent activist of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), views the community's restoration of faith in the Congress(I) as the first step in the reverse journey of the party towards undoing the mistakes it committed over two decades in Uttar Pradesh in terms of social and political interventions. Siddiqui said: "Remember that the deterioration of the Congress as a major political player started in the late 1980s when the party embarked on the path of pursuing a soft-Hindutva political line and systematically lost the support of minorities."

Nirmal Khatri, Congress(I) candidate from Faizabad in six Lok Sabha elections including the current one and the grandson of the legendary Congress leader Acharya Narendra Deb, admits that the observation cannot be brushed aside lightly. "The politics of soft-Hindutva has contributed to our decline, though it will not be right to highlight it as the only reason." Khatri hastens to add that the line has been reversed comprehensively under the leadership of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and is an important factor that has led to the revival of support for the party among the minorities.

Khatri's assertion about a comprehensive reversal of the soft-Hindutva policy may be debatable, but there is little doubt that the practice of this `tactical line' set in motion the downhill journey of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh. The first concrete manifestation of this line in Uttar Pradesh came in the form of the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid on February 1, 1986 for worship by Hindus.

Arguably, the decision had its origins in the massive electoral victory gained by the Congress(I) in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, riding on a strong anti-Sikh minority sentiment generated by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Congress(I) leaders such as Arun Nehru and Buta Singh - both showed a predilection for the BJP in the later stages of their political career - perceived the popular outrage after Indira Gandhi's assassination essentially as an instance of communal polarisation of Hindus. Apparently, they convinced Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to pursue the same line elsewhere in North India and the opening of the Babri Masjid was in keeping with this.

The opening of the locks in 1986 was followed by more blatant collaboration with the forces of Hindutva, including the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). In 1989, this led to the shilanyas (laying of the foundation stone) for a Ram temple at Ayodhya under the direct supervision of Home Minister Buta Singh. While the run-up to the shilanyas was marked by internal tumult in the Congress(I) triggered by corruption charges against Rajiv Gandhi and the exit of several leaders including V.P. Singh from the Union Cabinet and the party, the BJP started pursuing a more aggressive Hindutva line under the leadership of L.K. Advani.

Ultimately, the Congress(I) game plan came unstuck in the face of the anti-corruption campaign led by V.P. Singh and the aggressive Hindutva line of the BJP. At the social level, while Muslims went along with the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal, seeing it as the new and real face of Indian secularism, upper-caste Hindus, especially Thakurs, joined hands with the BJP and its associates. Later, the Muslim community almost en masse shifted allegiance to the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which was formed when a section of the Janata Dal moved out under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Political developments in the early 1990s further fragmented the rainbow coalition. The V.P. Singh-led National Front government decided to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations for the Other Backward Classes and, as a reaction, Advani launched his first Rath Yatra with the express intent of creating a pan-Hindu social coalition that would "liberate the Ram Mandir from the clutches of successors of Muslim invaders". The BJP strengthened its support base among the upper-caste Brahmins and Thakurs through the movement.

Simultaneously, an adversarial reaction to the BJP's pan-Hindu platform - rooted in the age-old caste divisions in Hindu society - helped the Janata Dal or the political forces that were part of it to obtain a mass following among the OBCs. The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a vocal and vigorous advocate of Dalit politics in the late 1980s and 1990s dealt a blow to the Dalit support base of the Congress(I).

Several observers, including Tyagi, believe that the politics of caste and communal polarisation reached its peak in the 1990s and started its downhill voyage with the advent of the new millennium. Tyagi said: "There is a kind of exasperation with caste politics even within the beneficiary communities, and Muslims are looking forward to leaders who do not treat them as vote banks."

Obviously, if the Congress(I) and its new charismatic leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra can step in with the right kind of slogans that capture the imagination of the people, especially the poor and the marginalised, the current revival could well be the beginning of a great rejuvenation of the party. This time round, the gains could be more in the share of votes and not in terms of seats. Clearly, the minorities are at the core of the revival of the Congress(I) in the State.

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