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Why Secularism Should Matter for Congress if it Wants to Win 2024 Polls

Will Rahul Gandhi raising the issue of Gautam Adani’s alleged money laundering and cronyism unsettle Prime Minister Modi’s chances of re-election in 2024?

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

publive-image Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a rally | Photo courtesy: @INCIndia | Twitter

Immediately after Congress’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the BJP in 2014, its senior leader, A K Antony, was tasked with ascertaining the reasons for this loss. His advice was succinct. Congress was perceived as anti-Hindu, and it should do something to correct this impression. There were also suggestions that the party should celebrate Hindu festivals in the party offices around the country. In other words, conduct itself like the BJP.

Interestingly, Antony, who had an incorruptible lily-white image in his party and outside, did not believe that Congress lost due to a rash of gargantuan corruption scams that were levelled against many of its leaders. Like all politicians of yore, issues of corruption or governance do not determine voting behaviour but are more due to issues of caste and religion. Antony has come to grief with BJP tweezing out his son, Anil, from the family and party fold - a price he allegedly paid after the CBI interrogated him on the Tetra truck purchase scandal.

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However, there was some merit in Antony’s diagnosis. The truth is that if the BJP and its Hindutva juggernaut have to be fought, then the Congress and the opposition have to recalibrate their strategy and learn some lessons from how religious populists have been defeated electorally in different parts of the world. An important takeaway from a recount of these instances is that none of them lost the polls due to the exposure of corruption scandals. The question is will Rahul Gandhi raising the issue of Gautam Adani’s alleged money laundering and cronyism unsettle Prime Minister Modi’s chances of re-election in 2024?

History is full of instances when seemingly impossible arithmetic in favour of a majoritarian populist comes up short when there is a coalition of minorities, secularists and more. The sine qua non or essential condition for this to happen depends on the strength of the institutions, especially those that oversee the conduct of the elections. We will not go too long back in history to dig up instances of how such leaders were defeated but look at the more recent examples when voters upset all calculations to show the exit door to those who felt confident in numbers and their exclusionary rhetoric.

Take, for example, the ouster in 2015 of Mahinda Rajapakse as the President of Sri Lanka after he had ruled the island country for ten years. He thought he was at the crest of his popularity when he fell short against a coalition comprising Hindu minorities, Muslims, secularists, Marxists and others. Final results showed that Rajapakse’s party got 47 per cent short of the winning coalition of 51 per cent, which was led by MRS Sirisena. Rajapakse used strong-arm tactics but could not defeat a coalition in which 71 per cent were majority Sinhala.

Even in the US, many presidential polls and umpteen contenders over the years failed to trump this arithmetic led by minorities, secularists and others. For instance, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate of the Republicans in 2012 against the incumbent President Barack Obama, got everything wrong, including his pitch. He fell victim to the simple logic that in an election, when both the incumbent and the challenger are disliked, the incumbent wins. Obama was supported in considerable measure by minorities and women, who feared the conservative Republicans. Here again, the white supremacists that were to defeat a coloured President failed.

The same script followed in the 2020 elections when President Donald Trump seemed to be the likely winner until the opposition overwhelmed him. In Brazil, again, the right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro lost by a whisker to former Ernesto Lula due to the coming together of all the parties in the opposition that represented harassed indigenous people, secularists and many others who did not like Bolsonaro’s aggressive populism. Bolsonaro’s education, too, like the Indian PM, Narendra Modi, is quite uncertain. Bolsonaro, who stole many of the pro-poor policies of Lula, grew in popularity but came up short during the fiercely contested polls.

Now the next big contest is in Turkey, where Recep Erdogan, who has been in power for the past 20 years, faces a stiff challenge from a six-party coalition led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Though a bookish former bureaucrat, Kilicdaroglu, is expected to beat Erdogan at the hustings. Though people are disturbed by the divisive policies of President Erdogan, they are only confident of defeating him after all the opposition parties representing different social groups, and minorities came together.

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In India, this lesson is lost on Rahul Gandhi, who walked for 4000 kilometres under the rubric of “Bharat Jodo Yatra” but is loathe to be seen with the minority community. Antony’s advice has been adhered to make Congress look like the B team of the BJP without paying attention to the compelling arithmetic represented by the minorities and those opposed to the ruling party’s religious politics. If the BJP has had a free run of their religious agenda in a secular country, then the big blame should fall on Congress and the other opposition parties. At no stage was there active resistance from the party workers to defend the secular constitution.

Instead, Rahul Gandhi was exploring schism in Hinduism and wondering whether, by pursuing Shaivism, he could wean away the support of the BJP. Rahul’s persona and Congress’s considerable secular legacy do not allow this kind of dabbling with different Hindu sects or denominations. Even traditional Congress supporters would wonder why they should waste their vote on a faux Hindu party and would rather back the BJP. If the Congress or the opposition parties want to throw out the BJP, then they have to revisit the lessons within and from recent elections that have taken place abroad. They should remember that the charge of corruption against a leader has a limited impact. What really works is electoral arithmetic.

BJP managed to win 303 seats, with 36 per cent of votes that were cast in their favour. What they also succeeded in doing in the process was to make the minority vote irrelevant. That struck a body blow to the Congress party. Despite setbacks, Congress has not attempted to regain its lost mojo. It has forgotten how it wins and who contributes to this enterprise. It has less to do with building an organisation but more with articulating policies that attract different constituents.

In 2004, this writer was going through UP and found some young men organising a public rally. The party then was in abysmal shape, and no one really gave anyone a chance to it to return to power. On being asked who were they and what they were doing, they answered rather succinctly. “We have nothing to do with the Congress or BJP, but we do not want them to come to power.” The big question is will the Congress leading the opposition revive this mood again?


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.