Is Rahul Gandhi rejecting his mother’s secularism?

The rather ‘Holy’ election campaign being waged by Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat elections has led to speculation that the Indian National Congress may adopt a ‘soft Hindutva’ model under Rahul Gandhi to counter BJP’s ‘hard Hindutva’.


Over the last half a century or so, the party has experimented with diluting the classical, Western concept of secularism preferred by Nehru.

While the classic, Nehruvian secularism implied ‘keeping all religions at a distance’, the party has often tried the alternative definition of ‘keeping all religions close’ by catering to the communal elements of all religions, instead of ignoring all of them.

The most famous of such instances is the opening of the Babri Masjid to Hindu worshipers in 1986 when Rahul’s father, Rajiv, was the prime minister.

According to Pranab Mukherjee’s memoir The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, Rajiv Gandhi persuaded UP chief minister Bir Bahadur Singh to open the lock in the Babri Masjid in 1986 to allow Ram Lalla worshippers to conduct religions activities inside the Masjid. It is a different matter that experiment ended rather badly for the grand old party by preparing the ground for the rise of the BJP.

In keeping with the revised definition of secularism — keeping all religious leaders happy — Rajiv also overturned a decision by the Supreme Court of India that had ruled that Muslim women were entitled to maintenance from their ex-husbands.

It is argued that the policy of soft Hindutva (mixed with soft Islamism) was continued under Rajiv’s successor PV Narasimha Rao as well. Allegations have been leveled that Rao was aware of the plans to destroy the Babri Masjid in advance.


However, the Congress Party’s approach towards secularism again took a radical turn with the emergence of Sonia Gandhi at the top.

The party put a ‘full stop’ to the policy of ‘soft Hindutva’, even as the appeasement of non-Hindu communities continued.

This led to the alienation of Hindu votes from the Congress Party, especially in states — such as Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — where minority presence in the population was substantial enough for the policy to make a perceptible difference in party’s policies.

This led to a weakening of the party’s base among Hindus even as it consolidated its gains among minorities — a situation that persisted to the eve of the Gujarat elections.


With the coming to power of Rahul Gandhi, the party seems to be departing from the Sonia-era definition of secularism, and from all indications, replacing it with the Rajiv-era definition of trying to cater to religious leaders of all hues equally.

It is in this context that Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive ‘temple darshan’ has to be seen.

By some reports, the Congress leader has visited over two dozen temples in the the last few days in an effort to dilute the ‘anti-Hindu’ — or at least the ‘non-Hindu’ — image of the party.

To be fair, this does not seem to be a new strategy that Rahul Gandhi crafted on the eve of his ascension to the Congress throne. In 2012, for example, he is reported to have said: “I am a Brahmin…and general secretary in the party” — when responding to criticism that the party had moved away from Hindus in Uttar Pradesh.


Rahul’s strategy could reduce the alienation felt many Hindu communities that used to be traditional supporters of the Congress.

For example, in the last decade, the Nair community of Kerala — arguably the strongest traditional support base of the Congress in the state — has increasingly moved to the BJP due to a perception that leaders from the community were being ignored in favor of Syrian Christian leaders like AK Antony, Oommen Chandy, PC Chacko, PJ Kurien etc.

After the drubbing in the 2016 elections, the party has again reinstalled a Nair leader — Ramesh Chennithala — as the leader of the opposition in a measure aimed at stemming the outflow of upper caste Hindus from the party’s base. That this came at a time when Rahul started playing an active role in the party is no coincidence.

However, it remains to be seen if it will work as intended — given that the BJP is now available as ‘genuine Hindu’ alternative across the country and given the considerable erosion already witnessed in the party’s Hindu vote base.

Finally, the move to placate Hindu religious sentiments also risks disenchanting ‘liberals’ — arguably a small portion of voters — as well as minorities.