Congress’ Hindutva politics in UP fuels a sense of defeat among its Muslim leadership

Several Congress leaders are unhappy with the party's decision to contest polls in Uttar Pradesh independently Amit Dave/REUTERS
10 April, 2019

In October 2018, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, addressed a gathering of the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys’ Association, an alumni group, in Lucknow. Azad, a Congress man since the start of his career in 1973, compared the present political situation in the country to the post-1857 era “when the British were dividing Hindus and Muslims.” He said that he had himself been a “victim of divisive politics” over the last four years.

Azad recalled that since his days as a Youth Congress leader, he would campaign for other Congress leaders across the country. “Over 95 percent of those who called me for campaigning were Hindu brothers and leaders, while just 5 percent were Muslims,” he said. “But in the past four years, this 95 percent has dipped to 20 percent.”

Azad suggested that his own party leaders had stopped calling him for campaigns because they feared they might lose votes by having a Muslim face. “Aaj darta hai aadmi bulane se … pata nahi iska voters pe asar kya hoga,”—People are scared of calling me … they are not sure what impact it will have on voters.

Six months later, as Priyanka Gandhi, the newly-appointed Congress general secretary, and in-charge for eastern Uttar Pradesh, undertakes rallies across the state including a visit to the Bade Hanuman temple in Prayagraj, several minority leaders within the party have now started echoing Azad’s sentiments. No prominent Muslim leaders have been seen accompanying Gandhi in her road-shows and rallies in the state. This is despite the presence of several prominent Muslim leaders in the Congress—including Salman Khurshid, former external affairs minister who was previously an officer on special duty for Indira Gandhi, Salim Sherwani, a five-time parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun constituency and a close ally of Rajiv Gandhi, Nadeem Javed, chairman of the minority department and a Congress member of the legislative assembly from Jaunpur, and former parliamentarian Rashi Alvi. Raj Babbar, the president of the UP Congress Committee, is the only member of parliament from the state who is seen around the Gandhi family these days.

Several Muslim leaders and workers within the Congress spoke to me about how they feel marginalised within the party. They expressed anxiety that their leadership is being undermined because of their identity. Around a dozen Muslim leaders I spoke to also acknowledged that they had wanted the party to fight the Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh in alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Many of them also told me that the minority department of the Congress party in the state lacked the organisational structure needed to engage with voters at the ground.

Sherwani acknowledged the absence of any Muslim face during Gandhi’s rallies in the state. “I’ve raised this before the party,” he told me. “I said that big leaders from every community were once a part of the Congress party. At the moment, this is the biggest drawback of the Congress. And I think Rahul Gandhi has understood it and has assured that he would address the problem and bring leaders from every community together.”

Sherwani is the party’s candidate from Badaun for the 2019 general election. He left the Congress after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992—the Congress-led Narasimha Rao government at the centre was widely accused of inaction—and rejoined the party in 2009. He told me that Muslim voters, who constitute 19 percent of the total population in Uttar Pradesh, would turn in favor of the party only if Muslim leaders “are seen standing along with Gandhis.”

However, the Congress’s reluctance not to be seen as a Muslim party was only the secondary issue for the Muslim cadre and leaders within the party who spoke to me. They were more concerned about the party’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh independently. In January, while announcing their alliance, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party had left two seats—Rae Bareli and Amethi—for the Congress. In turn, Congress first announced that it would contest all of UP’s 80 seats alone. It later said it would contest 73 seats, and left seven seats for the SP-BSP alliance. The leaders felt that this would divide Muslim votes between the Congress party and the SP-BSP alliance. They believed that the Congress should have won the trust of Muslim voters by agreeing to fight on lesser seats with the alliance instead of leaving them in confusion.

A Muslim youth leader and party coordinator for four district constituencies spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. He said that his sense from the ground was that the upcoming elections were the first time since the Babri Masjid demolition that the Muslims of UP were considering the Congress—the party’s silence on the demolition had earlier angered them. The coordinator was disappointed at the party’s insistence for more seats from the SP-BSP alliance.

Musalman inko maaf kar chuke hain ... lekin aap usko adjust karne ki wajaye SP-BSP ki taraf dhakel rahen hain”—Muslims have forgiven the Congress, but instead of adjusting them into the party, you are pushing them towards the SP-BSP [and RLD] alliancethe leader told me. “Hasiyat hai nahi fir bhi seatein maang rahen hain”—They are not capable, and yet they are asking for seats.

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from the state without fielding a single Muslim candidate. None of the 55 Muslim candidates from other parties in the fray won. According to a post-poll analysis published in the Business Standard, “the Muslims were confused and split their votes between the Congress, regional parties”— such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party—“and the new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, not knowing which candidate had the best chance against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.” On the other hand, it said, Hindu voters voted “en masse for the BJP.”

Obaidullah Naseer, a party member from Uttar Pradesh, told me that it was understood within the party cadre that the alliance would have been good for them. But he also believed that the Muslims in the state were so eager to get rid of the Modi government at the centre that they would vote for a national opposition party in the Lok Sabha election rather than a regional alliance.

Naseer said that senior party leaders had recently held “an open discussion” at a hotel in Lucknow to hear the views of minority leaders. “In the meeting, several members said that if it suits you, then don’t give us ticket, don’t do anything for us, but make a strategy that will stop polarisation and ensure the [BJP] is defeated,” he recounted.

In the same meeting, another argument elicited what a party member described as an “offensive” response from the one of the leaders chairing it. “Somebody raised the issue of the detention of Muslim youths in the state during the [United Progressive Alliance] government,” the party coordinator said, recalling what one of his juniors who attended the meeting had told him. “To which, one of the guests chairing the meeting said, ‘Aap Pakistan mein hotey toh ye sawal bhi nahi utha sakety,’”—If you were in Pakistan, you would not have even been able to ask this question. The party coordinator added that the “Pakistan syndrome” is a “classic problem” among the “Brahmin leadership” of the party, and that it “often describes violence committed against Muslims as if [it is] their own doing.”

Salman Khurshid, the Congress candidate from the Farrukabad constituency, told me that there were two views within the Congress party about the alliance. “It may be right or wrong, but there is a feeling in the Congress that we won’t suffer any loss,” he said, referring to the non-alliance with the SP-BSP-RLD. “Many people believe that. Because there is still a lot of anti-incumbencies against these [regional] parties.” Khurshid added, “Many people also believe though that if we had gone together, there would have been a kind of wave, ek sweep sa hota.” Several Congress leaders, including Khurshid, said that the responsibility to form an alliance lay with the SP and BSP as well, and that they would be equally responsible for the division of Muslim votes if that were to happen.

One leader I spoke to was of the opinion that the Congress was right in contesting the state polls independently. Siraj Mehndi, vice president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, told me that he had written a letter to Rahul Gandhi to suggest going to the polls alone. Mehndi’s argued that if the party had contested as part of the alliance, it would have failed to make its presence felt across the state. “If they had given us 12–15 seats, then we wouldn’t have our party flag on 65-70 seats,” he told me. “What would our workers have done then? So we have to save our workers, and save our organisation too.”

But the party coordinator disagreed. He told me that the Muslim leaders within the party who supported fighting the elections alone cared more about their position than the party’s long-term interest. He said the reasoning that the party would lose its presence in other constituencies did not hold water because there was no organisational structure on the ground.

Hamare paas karyakarta hai kaun jo bhagega,”—What workers do we have at all for them to leave, the coordinator told me. He added that the party has not been working to improve the structure of its minority cell in the way it has done for its Other Backward Classes cell in the state. He further noted that he did not find any minority cells in the district, town or ward levels in the four districts he visited recently. “I’ve not seen any senior leaders from Delhi ever attending any party meeting held at [the] state level,” he continued.

Moreover, the position of the UP state president of the party’s minority cell has been vacant since May 2018. Mehndi held the post until he resigned on the grounds that the party’s policy did not allow him to hold more than one post at a time. The coordinator, however, told me that Mehndi had resigned because Nadeem Javed, a young leader from the Jaunpur constituency—where Mehndi hails from—was appointed the chairman of the minority department that month. Mehndi was expecting that post for himself, the coordinator said. But Mehndi denied resigning from the post of the state chief of the minority cell due to an “ego clash.”

Shehla Ahrari, president of the Congress party’s women cell for the Uttar Pradesh (East) zone, also admitted that she saw first-hand the party’s lack of organisational structure in eastern UP when she was made the president last September.

“We didn’t have an organisation when I was given the responsibility,” Ahrari told me. “From 15 September to this day, I built the structure at the district, ward and city level. Unless the party works at the root level, Congress or any other party cannot succeed.”

Commenting on the vacant position, Sherwani admitted that, “If such things are not happening then it’s our party’s weakness.” He continued, “The party should fill these positions as soon as possible so that the party has a good image and sends a good message among the people.”

I asked the party leaders about who calls the shots on behalf of the minority department while it has no chief. Those who spoke on the record said there was either a coordinator or a team from Delhi constantly taking stock of the minority issues in the state. But the others, who requested anonymity, had one common response: “Sab kuch High Command se banke aata hai. Hum log sirf follow kartey hain”—Everything is directed by the High Command. We only follow.

The party’s Muslim cadre told me that as of now, only Khurshid has held a meeting with party workers—at the Clarks Avadh hotel in Lucknow— to discuss minority issues. Khurshid is heading the Congress’ five-member Election Strategy and Planning committee for the 2019 general election in the state.

According to the party coordinator, the Congress does not have a policy problem when it comes to minority issues, but rather a structural one. “Our country remained secular even after 80 percent of the population is Hindu because of the Congress,” he said. “So it’s a natural party for Muslims.” But, he added, there has been a rise of right-wingers within the Congress lately and they have convinced Rahul Gandhi to adopt the politics of “soft Hindutva.”

Several Congress leaders I spoke to expressed their disappointment over the central leadership’s stand on issues such as the construction of the Ram Temple. They rued the fact that the Congress position appears to be in line with the BJP. The Congress has not opposed calls for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The coordinator pointed to recent statements of senior Congress leaders on the issue. In November last year, Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee state president Raj Babbar said, “the Congress has never opposed the construction of the Ram temple and will never do so in the future as well.” The same month, CP Joshi, the All India Congress Committee general secretary, said that only a Congress prime minister would construct the Ram temple. While a section among these leaders accepted the party’s “soft Hindutva” stand on several issues as a strategy to counter the BJP’s politics, another felt that the strategy has been failing the party since the Babri Masjid demolition.

Apart from such statements, the Gandhis’ silence in campaign speeches over incidents of lynching in the state related to cows has also made the Muslim leadership within the party uncomfortable. The coordinator said that this silence would alienate Muslim voters further.

Saif Ali Naqvi, a member of the Congress party’s media and publicity committee, and Sohail Ansari, a member of the coordination committee, told me that the party leaders have not spoken of the lynching in their rallies because the party does not believe in the politics of “caste and religion.”

Khurshid defended the party’s public stand on issues such as the Ram Temple, arguing that “there could be a difference between a party’s ideology and its strategy.” He indicated that the Congress’s soft Hindutva avatar is only a strategy to counter the BJP and not its ideology. “The purpose of politics is something else, while that of ideology is another—we are very clear about that.”

But several leaders also believed that the strategy would harm the party because the voters wouldn’t understand such nuances. “Sacchai ye hai, hamare yahan voting jo hoti hai wo hoti hai Musalmanon ke khilafThe truth is that the voting that happens here, it is against Muslims—the coordinator said. So far, the Congress has declared candidates for 47 Lok Sabha seats for Uttar Pradesh constituencies—only eight tickets have gone to Muslim leaders.