Any victory in Madhya Pradesh is an RSS victory

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia—who is now with the BJP—offer prayers at a temple in Ujjain on 29 October 2018. The only answer the Congress has offered in Madhya Pradesh to the rise of the BJP is becoming more like the saffron party. Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
18 November, 2023

“The Congress should win Madhya Pradesh even if it puts up a lamp-post, unless the lamp-post chooses to piss on itself”—this was the remarkably earthy formulation of the election situation in the state by an old-time journalist. It is worth noting it down now, a day after polling, so that it remains a record of caution against those who will variously claim credit for Rahul Gandhi or Kamal Nath, if the party does make it through.

Throughout the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh, the party failed to address a fundamental question—a question that it has been unable to answer at the national level too. The success of the Bharatiya Janata Party was a result of the Congress’ failures, its compromises and its hypocrisy. Has the party learnt anything from successive defeats? What would it aim to do differently if it were to come to power?

The only answer the party has offered in Madhya Pradesh is that it will take on the BJP by becoming more like the saffron party. This has been, more or less, the only strategy the party has come up with ever since I was a reporter based in the state in the early 2000s, covering the 2003 elections in which Uma Bharti defeated the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress.

In 2003, the Congress leadership consisted of Singh, who is a Rajput, and Kamal Nath, who is a Bania. It still does, but for the fact that they have swapped roles. This freeze in the evolution of the party, thanks to the big two, essentially recapitulates the situation at the centre. At the national level, the presence of the Gandhis has ensured that the party has not seen a new set of grassroot leaders—who are not merely inheriting their parent’s legacy—emerge since the early 1980s which saw Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh and YS Rajasekhara Reddy rise. This has ensured the party has been unable to adapt to changing realities that should have made it a far more formidable challenge to the BJP. 

The story of the Congress’ failures in Madhya Pradesh is, perhaps, the best summary of its national failure. It starts with its failure to build on its strengths, and ends with its capitulation to the BJP’s way of thinking.

If we consider the course of the Narmada as a line that runs through the state, the concentration of Dalit population, which makes up about seventeen percent of the total population, increases steadily as we move northwards close to the Chambal in the northwest or to Uttar Pradesh in the northeast. Under Kanshi Ram, in the 1990s, the Bahujan Samaj Party started making considerable inroads into a vote the Congress had taken for granted. This increasing pressure led to the Congress government to formulate a Dalit agenda as part of the Bhopal declaration in 2002. In addition, the Singh government launched the charnoi scheme, a move to redistribute village grazing land among landless Dalits and Adivasis. It is the only recent example of a programme of land redistribution in the Hindi belt.

The party read the 2003 results as a push back to the charnoi scheme from the Other Backward Classes—many of them landowning castes—who make up close to fifty percent of the state’s population. Moreover, in the run up to the 2003 elections, Mayawati expelled Phool Singh Baraiya, a Kanshi Ram confidante, who went on to found his own party. This has since led to a continued decline in the BSP’s vote share and the Congress has never again returned to its affirmation of the Bhopal declaration.

While the OBC backlash did, to some extent, increase the degree of support for the BJP during this period, what was never factored into any such analysis was the amount of work the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had already done among the OBCs. During the two terms in the opposition while the Digvijaya Singh Congress was in power, the BJP was able to produce a plethora of OBC leaders. In quick succession, Uma Bharti, who is a Lodh, and Babulal Gaur, who is a Yadav, preceded Shivraj Chouhan, a Kirar, as chief minister. Both Bharti and Chouhan are the products of the work done by the RSS among the OBCs of the state.

Thanks to such work, the BJP has a clear strategy in the state. The Hindu upper-caste population, no more than ten percent of the state’s population, is its core, providing both the financial and religious backing that has made the RSS a formidable presence in the state. The Malwa region extending in and around Indore once overlapped with the British province of Central provinces and Berar, headquartered in Nagpur. From its inception in 1925, the RSS has thrived here. It has, thus, also been one of the regions of the country where the BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh, had a substantial hold.

This upper-caste control operates in conjunction with the large OBC population in the state. In the absence of a single OBC caste which is numerically dominant, such as the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, which could form the core around which a challenge to upper-caste politics could be imagined, OBC politics in the state has been channelled through the RSS’s Brahminism. Even as individual OBC leaders have risen, there has been no challenge to upper-caste hegemony in the state.  

The Congress has been unable to build up any OBC leaders but for Subhash Yadav, who was deputy chief minister under Singh but was consigned to the shadow of the big two. Twenty years later, Jitu Patwari, a Patidar leader, has had to deal with much the same treatment from the duo each time he has asserted himself. This has left the party fighting for the OBC vote on the BJP’s turf, by broadcasting its Hindu credentials.

The party will point to Rahul Gandhi’s new love for the social-justice plank, as he dwells on the caste census in rally after rally in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But he clearly still has much to learn about the state. The caste census means a lot in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but as of now it means little in Madhya Pradesh where a post-Mandal social awareness has never risen among the OBCs. It can only have impact if it is tied to a programme of social justice that needs to be taken among the OBCs by the Congress’ own OBC leaders. Instead, even someone like Jitu Patwari is far more likely to be seen proclaiming his devotion to Hinduism rather than social justice.

Unsurprisingly, the caste census has not been a substantial part of the rhetoric of any state leader. Instead, they have preferred to take a leaf out of the carefully orchestrated temple hopping that Rahul has been putting on display. As the elections campaigns unfolded in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, the Rahul camp released videos of their leader making a trip to Kedarnath. This new found devotion to Shiva, nowhere in evidence in a long political career but for the past few years, comes on the back of a Hindutva thrust that has leaders ranging from Nath to Bhupesh Baghel—the chief minister of Chhattisgarh—espousing aspects of the Ramayana that may even confound fervent devotees.

Both Nath and Baghel claim to be in the possession of exact path taken by Rama during his exile—conveniently, if contradictorily, through their respective states—and have promised to develop it. Nath has claimed credit for the Congress over building of the Ram Mandir after the illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque. He has gone on record to state that the main instigation for the whole process was provided by his party when it reopened the locks to the disputed site in 1989.

Talk to Congress insiders, and they parrot what the party leader Shashi Tharoor has often said, that Hinduism is a plural, open, diverse outlook that stands in contrast to religions of the book, as well as the RSS version of Hinduism, which the Sangh terms Hindutva. Remarkably, such a parochial self-serving sentiment manages to be both patronising about the belief system of a large number of minorities, and, at the same time, evades the primary shame that lies at the heart of Hinduism—that of caste.

This then is the new Congress, and it is exactly the old Congress that was created by Indira Gandhi after her return from her post-Emergency defeat. Over the decade from 1980 to 1990, she and her sons oversaw communal politics that catered both to Sikh and Hindu fundamentalism. Without the Congress’s dalliance with Sikh fundamentalism to bring down the Akalis, or its intervention in the Babri Masjid dispute, neither would Punjab have spiralled out of control as it did, nor would the Hindu Right have prospered as it has.

In return for the Muslim support it took for granted, what did it promise? It ran a protection racket, holding up the threat from Sangh outfits and other fringe Hindutva groups if it were voted out of power. Through this period, there were no substantive efforts aimed at issues of development, education or representation. It served the Congress’s interest to let a small coterie of Ashraf Muslims speak for the entire community, in the same manner as they believed that a largely upper-caste Hindu party leadership could speak for the diversity of India.

Of course, the threat from the Hindu Right is real, and protection is indeed needed. But the Congress seems determined to behave in the same old way. Even if it comes back to power, it cannot even ensure a brief lull in the constantly growing power of the Hindu right.

What it actually needs to do is to define and then communicate a plausible vision for social justice among the OBCs, while consolidating the support it once enjoyed among Dalits and Adivasis. The Adivasi vote in Madhya Pradesh—21 percent of the population—has shifted back and forth between the two parties, but again, the Congress has nothing substantive to offer. Its manifesto speaks about the introduction of PESA, but as an earlier report in The Caravan pointed out, the party has already reneged on its promised imposition of PESA in Chhattisgarh by diluting key provisions.

Rahul’s espousal of the caste census in his Madhya Pradesh speeches, in the absence of a clearly thought-out programme for social justice, is untenable. It needs substance, which it does not have at the moment, and it needs an ability to stick with the message. It cannot be a matter of convenience, which is what his attacks on Adani or the RSS seem after his tours of the state. In states where the Congress has been at the receiving end of the Adani benevolence, which starts with Nath and goes on to Gehlot, the issue has been set aside. He has also evaded calling out the RSS exactly where the RSS is at its strongest. This does not betray any courage of conviction, instead reducing his statements to convenient posturing.

The Congress has to understand it has no chance, and no means, of making inroads into the upper-caste vote. And as long as that is the case, it cannot break away OBC support for the BJP by overtly cavorting around in temples. The results of the state election, if indeed they line up in the Congress’s favour, do not indicate any real long-term move away from the BJP. This will be visible as the party goes into the national elections.

The party must realise the visual symbolism of Hindutva is only one part of the RSS’s work among the OBCs and it cannot hope to counter it by imitation. All it achieves by doing so is to prove what the RSS cadre today openly claims in any conversation, that the Congress in Madhya Pradesh is exactly the Congress the RSS has always asked for.