An outburst in Congress over its alignment with Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui in Bengal underscores the dilemma facing “secular” parties amid the rightward shift in Indian politics since 2014. After years of courting Muslim identity politics to arrest its decline, Congress is struggling to articulate a cogent secularism that carries along minorities and reverses Hindu majoritarian sentiment quietly ballooning over time. The roots run deep: It’s five decades since Congress went from fighting the relatively moderate Muslim League in Kerala to erecting a stable alliance, helping propel both parties to power every alternating election. CPM resisted this temptation, which may partly explain its resilience against BJP in Kerala unlike in Bengal.
Similarly, during Tarun Gogoi’s heyday in Assam, Congress would imperiously dismiss Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF but just one spell in opposition has prompted an alliance. In Bengal, having lost the Muslim vote to TMC, Congress is propping up Siddiqui’s little-known Indian Secular Front in cahoots with another declining “secular” force, CPM. Such political alliances with those peddling communal identities can hardly be termed secularism. Yet Congress has smugly downplayed minority communalism while attacking majority communalism, a cardinal political error that enabled BJP to mobilise the numerically larger Hindu identity.
It’s just as ironic that, Muslims, underserved by the 1991 economic reforms, are disillusioned and increasingly throwing their lot with “Muslim” parties. Asaduddin Owaisi’s rise after BJP’s resurgence in a hardline avatar since 2014 has also divided the secular camp. By feeding off Muslim grievances but steadfastly keeping his distance from mainstream “secular” outfits, some see Owaisi as a legitimate voice of Muslim dissent while others rue his fragmenting of the Muslim vote.
The new BJP has little difficulty ridiculing the secular sophistry. But in the Bihar polls, Tejashwi Yadav managed an image makeover for RJD from an “M-Y” party to one articulating youthful aspirations for better jobs. Unimaginative secular honchos stuck in oldstyle “social justice” politics may want to pay attention. Far from addressing their problems, mobilising around the Muslim identity has triggered a reverse polarisation, aided by social media driven Islamophobia. In Assam and Kerala Congress, the original votary of Hindu-Muslim unity and secular nationalism, has the tough option of striking out alone without AIUDF and IUML, to arrest the reverse polarisation and charges of “minority appeasement”. Fumbling for answers to the BJP juggernaut, India’s “secular” parties must refocus on continuing the secular success of the 1991 reforms and attempt to broadbase it without succumbing to identity politics.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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