Rahul Gandhi has developed into a very clear and religious person. That required not to be seen as a problem in a land where over 99 percent of citizens admit to being “believers”. But Rahul is also the president of a political party. So, his religiosity requirements to be understood more in the context of the direction India’s public sphere is taking instead of his personal evolution.
It looks that the systematic way in which Rahul Gandhi’s visits to mutts, swamis, godmen and temples are planned and publicized has a clear political objective. Otherwise, why would he be visiting these places generally around election time? This trend has been evident since the Gujarat and Karnataka campaigns and continues in the current state assembly elections. I have named this Rahul’s “temple entry movement” (‘Congress’ Gujarat Model’, Economic & Political Weekly, January 13). One may say that this is a new packaging of the Congress leadership. But whether the Congress advantages from this or not, we should be asking: What does this mean for democratic politics and the building of a particular kind of public sphere?
Seeing places of worship is not the only way to search for spirituality; indeed, Mahatma Gandhi rarely saw temples but no one can doubt his search for the spiritual. Besides, at least so far, Rahul has been a regular visitor to places of worship of only one religion, unlike his grandmother, who, particularly in the latter part of her career, made it a point to visit places of worship of different religious traditions. While she could be accused of pandering to all religious communities, that surely is much better than sending a message that you care for only one religious tradition. While such visits to various places of worship do smack of political opportunism, they also have the ability to connect, somewhat crudely, with the syncretic traditions that India prides in. By not doing so, therefore, the message that Rahul Gandhi gives is pretty clear — that he is a devout Hindu. The act goes beyond personal belief and constitutes a bigger message.
The visiting of temples requires scrutiny in the larger political context, which has two elements that are relevant in this regard. One is the regular effort to make religiosity a public issue and enforce the burden of a public display of religiosity on both the lay public and the political leader. Since the Ayodhya movement of the late 1980s, the public display of religious identity and religiosity has become central to the public sphere. This tendency is often confused with the people’s religious practice and local religious identities. In other names, it translates into homogenization.
The task to homogenize Muslims as Muslims preceded this tendency in the majority community and the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation aimed at similarly crafting a “pan-Hindu” identity for different traditions and sects. The success of these efforts to construct a pan-Hindu identity led to the other development, viz., the rapidly altering equation between the majority religious community and minority religions. Besides mutual suspicion, there is also an isolation of the minority that has become palpable in the current regime.
Whether the Congress approach to convince Hindus that it is not anti-Hindu is “soft Hindutva” or not, the Congress president cannot afford to ignore the effects it will have on this central challenge. His
father, Ayodhya and Shah Bano, sought to be too clever by half and contributed to competitive communalism. Now Rahul may be giving shape to a new Congress that is blind to that central challenge. The electoral rise of this new Congress may mark the final departure of the idea of the Congress — a move toward Congress-mukt Bharat indeed.