During 1947-96, the Congress Party ruled the country except for two brief interludes, one in 1977 and the other in 1989. On both occasions, the revivalists played an important role in the alliance formed against the Congress government, which led to its ouster. The electoral alliance Janata Party which won the 1977 general elections owed much of its success to Jana Sangh which was the single largest group in the alliance. Similarly the Janata Dal, formed in 1989, had the support of the BJP, the political representative of the RSS. Though the Congress has always faced a challenge from the Hindu revivalists, its ability to deal with them seems to have grown weak with the emergence of the BJP. Despite being in power, the party failed to keep in check the communal frenzy which culminated in the demolition of Babri Mosque. The Congress can be singled out as the biggest culprit in giving an ugly turn to the controversy over Babri Masjid. It was Rajiv Gandhi’s government which ordered opening of the locks of the 16th century mosque. It further allowed the VHP permission to lay the foundation of a temple a few miles away from the disputed mosque. During its election campaign in 1989, “the Congress had been guilty of double talk. For instance, Rajiv Gandhi at first declared there will be no Hindu Rashtra” (India Today, 1989). Tempted to use the communal card, he later changed his stance. He made an appeal to the masses which was quite contrary to the party’s ideology. He said that if the “Hindus wanted Ram Rajya, they should vote for the Congress as it was the only party which could bring Ram Rajya to the country” (Times of India, 1989).
Rahul Gandhi made a statement (The Hindu, 2007) that had someone from his family been a leader during that time, the mosque would not have fallen. And the simple answer to that question is that his mother was still one of most powerful leaders of the Congress party at the time. One word from her between October 30 1992 and December 5 1992 would have jolted the Congress into action. Had she just said that we don’t trust Kalyan Singh, or the threat of the misuse of Article 356 is a lesser threat than the threat to India’s secular fabric that the demolition of the mosque would portend, but she said nothing.
Rajiv Gandhi’s statement, which was couched in communal terms, betrayed the Muslim trust. The Muslims felt cheated as they had been counting on the Congress for protection of their rights. Congress failure to intervene in the communal rioting which took place before the elections made the Muslims doubtful of its secular credentials. The realization dawned upon them that they were confronted not only with parties like the BJP, but also had to face forces like the Congress which pursued communalism in the garb of secularism. The role of the Congress during the tenure of V.P. Singh’s government, when it was in the opposition, remained highly suspect. It played to both the Hindus and the Muslims and at times appeared no better than the BJP. As one professor at Harvard University put it, “Congress and the Gandhis created an environment in which BJP could legitimately use religion in politics” (Newsweek, 1993). The Congress party tried to win over the Hindus by supporting the construction of the temple at the disputed site and at the same time put pressure on V.P. Singh’s government to intervene and resolve the issue in order to please the Muslims. Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi wrote a letter to Prime Minister V.P. Singh “asking him to refer the dispute to the Supreme Court of India, while his fellow Congress sites like Sharad Pawar remained busy in manipulating both the Hindus and the Muslims over the issue” (India Today,1990). The same duplicity marked Congress rule when it regained power in 1991. During its election campaign in 1991 “the party had pledged not to question the status of any mosque which existed at the time of India’s independence, that is, 15 August 1947” (The Nation,1991).
The Congress, how-ever, failed to keep its electoral promise and the way Prime Minister Narasimha Rao dealt with the whole issue confirmed the doubts of many that the party was in league with the BJP and VHP over the issue. As it has been put “All through, the BJP and Rao were hand in glove… This is the first proof” (India Today, 1992). The Congress was guided more by short term political gains and Narasimha Rao acted more as a party chief rather them as a head of government. Narasimha Rao failed to dismiss the government of Uttar Pradesh when Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, in defiance of the judicial order, allowed the VHP activists to lay the foundation of the temple in July 1992. His inaction over the issue stemmed, it is said, from his desire to politically expose the BJP and spoil its image. Rao believed that the BJP would not be able to come out of the situation which it has created for itself. His perception was that the BJP was not capable enough to live up to its electoral promise, that is, the demolition of Babri Mosque and even it if did so, it would spoil its public image. Therefore, he showed masterly inactivity over the issue. Rao’s calculation, however, went wrong; the BJP not only emerged victorious from the whole controversy but also forced the Congress to be on the defensive. The Congress used delaying tactics and tried to defer the issue; for BJP the issue had acquired an urgency as it had to come up with some kind of achievement to satisfy its followers and preserve its peculiar image. To this end, the party could have gone to any extent. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao realized this but failed to act and intervene when the mosque was being razed to the ground. The local administration remained unmoved and the dispatch of law enforcing agencies to the troubled site was deliberately delayed giving full freedom to Hindu extremists to violate the constitutional rights of the minorities. It was only after pressure from within the party that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao dismissed the state governments of BJP and banned the RSS. The move, however, came too late to produce any positive result. Instead, it provided a sad commentary on the internal affairs of the party. As stated by an analyst: “For the first time in the past two decades, a Congress prime minister is the target of increasingly harsh criticism as panic grows about his inability to tackle the BJP’s fanatical politics, win over the profoundly alienated Muslim masses, neutralize the communal forces, which have gradually pushed the Congress onto the defensive and try to force a new national agenda” (India Today, 1993). Lack of an agenda on the part of the Congress has been the main reason behind MP’s success. The Congress failure to address problems like corruption, inefficiency and unemployment helped BJP in widening the communal divide. It also made the Hindu masses believe the BJP propaganda that the Congress appeasement of the minorities had deprived them of their genuine rights. Instead of countering the BJP propaganda with an effective programme of uplift of the masses, the Congress joined the communal fray.
The net result of this policy has been that the party is reduced to a shadow of what it used to be. Its main concern seems to be the retention of power which he is deprived it of the initiative required to take on the BJP. Internal dissensions and a leadership vacuum have pushed the Congress to the sidelines, making it abandon the secular tradition which it had stood for in the past. Though secularism kept the religious divide in India in check for the past 45 years, it has never been a strong force in Indian society. Its veneer chipped easily with the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Secularism lost whatever little appeal it had with the emergence of parties like the BJP, when the Congress which claims to have adhered to the secular tradition of India failed to take on forces like the BJP. Marked with internal wrangling and poor leadership, when charged with appeasement of minorities the Congress joined the communal fray instead of putting up a fight against the communalists. The party seems to be guided by short term political interests which made it use the communal card for its survival. Apart from organizations like the RSS, which have helped in giving new life to Hindu revivalism, Congress policies have also stoked communal and religious frenzy in India. Its failure to deal with insurgencies in the two non-Hindu majority states of Punjab and Kashmir widened the communal divide and enhanced religious intolerance in the country which, in turn, helped the phenomenal rise of the RSS and its political affiliate the BJP. They capitalized on issues like Babri Masjid and thus dragged the Congress into the politics of religion. Religion and communalism seem to characterize the Indian political scene today. Unless the country finds some way out of this quagmire, it will remain plunged in the abyss of communalism which threatens its democratic as well as secular credentials.
The writer is an assistant professor at Centre for South Asian Studies, Ashoka university.