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Assembly elections: Dial M for victory
In the run up to UP assembly polls the Congress, for the first time, has given up its centrist moorings. In a do-or-die battle for the state, it is unabashedly promoting 'muscular secularism', has promised a Muslim quota and stirred the Ayodhya cauldron.
The similarity is eerie, if with an ironic role reversal. In the runup to 2007 mega Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the Congress was at the receiving end of assaults by its rivals for the UPA's "anti-Islamic" decisions. India's vote against Iran in the UN and the controversy surrounding the provocative Danish cartoons were issues that the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party exploited to mount an unprecedented attack on the Congress with an eye on the Muslim vote bank. The SP was clutching at straws with a clear writing on the wall for 'Maulana Mulayam' while Mayawati was anxious about falling short of the raised minority bar.
But the Congress stuck to its guns. It even added the Indo-US nuclear deal to its quiver on the way to the 2009 polls despite the opposition campaign of "handshake with the Great Satan". It had the last laugh, though.
Two and half years later, in the same heartland battlefield, the Congress is leading the charge with an aggressive pitch on the "Muslim quota" and by bowing to the shrill anti-Rushdie protests, while a surprised and anxious Opposition is trying desperately to match its Muslim rhetoric.
If a day is a lifetime in politics, the last few months, with Uttar Pradesh as prime concern, may have changed the Congress forever. The Grand Old Party suddenly has no qualms about abandoning its centrist moorings, is nonchalant about the gaining perception of backing off to religious hardliners and is, in subtle ways, stoking certain accusations it was dead wary of post-Ayodhya.
The tectonic shift in the Congress policy extends to Mandal, with newfound belligerence on the OBCs and most backwards. It's shrugging off its coyness on caste politics.
The Congress' bid to milk the 4. 5 per cent Muslim quota caught the Oppposition, which was relying on the Congress's centrism, off guard and forced a change in its campaign script to dislodge chief minister Mayawati.
For a good two weeks, the Congress threw the rival Samajwadi Party off balance with Rahul Gandhi repeatedly asking, loud and sharp, why Mulayam Singh Yadav had not given reservation to Muslims during his chief ministership. And the minority affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, promptly raised the bar by promising to double the quota to 9 per cent in UP. A rattled SP camp chose to cut its losses by ending the debate - it promised an 18 per cent quota.
The way the 2012 campaign has shaped up has raised many eyebrows. People are surprised at why the Congress has chosen 'muscular secularism' now, after exercising considerable restraint for 20 years since the Babri demolition brought a disastrous denouement to religious mobilisation. The party was also seen to have done its bit to stir the Ayodhya cauldron.
While the saffron frenzy left an obvious scar on Indian democracy, the Congress has learnt a few lessons. Its marginalisation at the hands of regional "secular" outfits resulted from the perception held by Muslims that PM Narasimha Rao had played "soft Hindutva" while the BJP appropriated the contending Hindu polarisation, leaving the Congress stranded. The party spent nine years out of power at the centre and lost some key states for good.
It has been cautious on religious issues ever since. It has realised that it cannot be the Hindu party of RSS dreams and its "secularism" cannot match the power and reach of rabble rousers like Mulayam and Lalu Prasad. What followed was a careful distancing from volatile issues in subsequent years and a patient wait for Hindus and Muslims to ease the polarisation. The 2004 victory in the Lok Sabha elections was a result of that vigil.
This month, the absence of fear - that it could again be caught in a secular-communal pincer a la Babri - was evident in the way the Congress raised the Muslim pitch.
Harish Rawat, the Congress face in Uttarakhand, begs to differ: "We have spoken of economy and development (quota), and not raked up any emotive issue. "
However, observers feel the Congress campaign is dictated by the desperation for a dramatic turnaround in UP, a life-anddeath issue for its implications on coming politics, especially on the 2014 polls and on Rahul's fledgling leadership.
Political experts believe the Congress would not have plunged headlong into the minority matrix without the assessment that chances of a Hindu backlash have reduced considerably. The BJP's continuing marginalisation in UP and its stagnation at the centre are seen as roadblocks in its attempt to do an Ayodhya encore. The protracted leadership issues in the saffron camp and the prospect of return to Hindutva shrillness aggravating the in-house 'hardline vs moderate' debate seem to comfort the Congress. The absence of a strong rival pole seems to have nudged the Congress to let aggressive "secularists" like Digvijay Singh prevail.
The shrill pitch, though, is still laced with dangers as was recently proved in the Kerala assembly elections. The Congress won by one seat even though it was tipped to sweep the contest. This was a warning that polarisation is not necessarily an exclusive saffron strategy. The CPM succeeded in leveraging the "Hindu sentiment" in the polls and gave a close shave to the Congress.
Of course, the BJP has not given up. The saffron camp has painted the "Muslim sub-quota" as the Congress bid to hurt the chances of Hindu OBCs, pitchforking its tempestuous Sadhvi to campaign across the vast land dominated by Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats, Koeris, Shakyas and others who first came together for Mandal-triggered OBC solidarity under the SP, and then as part of Hindu consolidation under the BJP.
Many argue that the assurance on the BJP front is driving the Congress brass down the road it considered risky till recently. Insiders point out that the changes in the policy began to take shape as soon as the signs of saffron decline started to show. The UPA-1 created a minority affairs ministry and appointed the Sachar panel, coinciding with rising fratricide in the BJP.
But on the whole, the centre seemed to hold. The repeated snub to Singh's "fake encounter" hypothesis on Batla House, the obstinacy to "let forces do their job on the terror front" if balanced by the unearthing of sanghi terror, the rebuff to tarring of the Indo-US nuclear deal as 'un-Islamic ' despite the costs involved, were aimed to create a perception that the Congress was not putting minority votes before policy.
But now with the quota move and its use in the UP campaign, the Congress seems to have given up the cautious approach.
Its performance in UP will set its future course. A good show here and the continuing lag in the BJP may just unleash "aggressive secularism" on a national scale. But a surprise saffron surge could be the end of it. All eyes are now set on how it pans out on March 6.
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