Last week, Congress president Rahul Gandhi held in-camera discussions with Muslim members of the intelligentsia. The next day, an Urdu newspaper reported " somewhat out of context " that he had said at the meeting that the Congress was a Muslim party.
Friday onwards, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders ramped up an offensive against Rahul and his party, ironically calling them communal and stridently demanding explanations. First off the block was defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who wondered, sarcastically, whether the Congress was a Muslim-dhari party. The next day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at a public meeting, raised a similar question. "Was the Congress a party of Muslim men only?" he asked, referring to the meeting and accusing Congress of favouring triple talaq.
On Monday, Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar accused the Congress of being a communal party and said that its divisive politics and appeasement of the minorities damaged the country. The next day, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, responding to a tweet by Rahul in which he had said that religion, caste and beliefs meant very little to him, reached to the conclusion that this clarification was indeed an admission that the Congress was a Muslim party. This was an orchestrated assault, but that is beside the point.
The day Sitharaman launched her attack, one of those present at the meeting, historian S Irfan Habib, clarified that the Congress president had said no such thing. Subsequently, others present at the meeting also clarified that Rahul had not said that the Congress was a Muslim party. What he had said had to be seen contextually. In response to a question, he had said that Congress was a party of the Muslims (not a Muslim party), because the Muslims were weak, and his party was with the underdogs. He had also said that Muslims were as important to the Congress as all other sections of society.
On Tuesday, 17 July, Rahul issued a statement in which he said that he was with the last person in the line, the exploited, the marginalised and the persecuted. This was the statement Patra had responded to. No BJP leader responded to the rebuttal (of their claims) by some of those present at the meeting. The reporter who had filed the story also clarified that Rahul's statement had been nuanced. He confirmed that the Congress president had said his party was one of Muslims because they had been weakened and had become another version of Dalits. This clarification was lost in the din of shrill accusations.
The important question, of course, is whether the Congress can be called a Muslim party or a party of the Muslims. The idea is so absurd, whether looked at historically or in the contemporary context, that it barely merits examination. But it must be, because it has become an important public issue, months ahead of a defining general election.
Historically, the Congress has been a broad church, at least since the time Father of the Nation Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi turned it into a vehicle for mass mobilisation. Champions of the 'Hindu cause', like Madan Mohan Malaviya and Purushottamdas Tandon coexisted with secular liberals like Tej Bahadur Sapru and Motilal Nehru; conservatives like Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad worked alongside socialist radicals like Jayaprakash Narayan and Narendra Deva; and free marketeers like C Rajagopalachari were yoked to champions of state intervention like Jawaharlal Nehru. Even former communists like Mohan Kumaramangalam were admitted to the party (in the 1960s) and prospered. Liberal Muslims like Abul Kalam Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai were respected leaders.
Lest we forget, it was Gandhi who emerged as the architect of accommodation. His fundamental position was that as a nationalist front against the colonial rulers, the Congress could not afford to back one sectional (or sectarian) interest against another: the interests of the entrepreneurial class should not be sacrificed to meet the demands of the workers, nor should the interests of the zamindars and rich peasants be attacked to satisfy the aspirations of marginal farmers and landless labourers. Religious communities would have to live together in harmony. Unity was paramount.
Let us also remember that Gandhi was a traditionalist " from a Hindu standpoint. He often spoke in a political idiom that evoked Hindu tonalities, as with his frequent references to Ram rajya and his elevation of the cow to a status approaching divinity. He also defended the caste system, as in his famous debate with BR Ambedkar.
The post-colonial Congress carried much of his legacy forward. Too much has been made of the fact that Nehru reformed Hindu personal law, while leaving Muslim personal law intact. As he himself once explained, the particular conditions created by the traumas of Partition made that a necessary expedient rather than an article of faith.
An honest appraisal of the Congress' record since Nehru's time will fail to uncover any systemic bias in favour of Muslims. If anything, they were more mortifyingly at the receiving end during the Emergency, mainly because, it is arguable, Sanjay Gandhi had the makings of a Hindu bigot. Former prime minister Indira Gandhi was well known for seeking out spiritual preceptors, including the infamous Dhirendra Brahmachari.
Rajiv Gandhi undeniably made huge blunders by reversing the Shah Bano judgment and banning Rushdie's Satanic Verses to appease the orthodox Muslim opinion. But it was the same man who opened one of the nastiest can of worms in post-independence history by ordering the unlocking of the disputed Babri Masjid to allow Hindus to worship within its precincts. Likewise, then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao dithered despite being in the possession of the relevant intelligence and allowed matters to culminate with the razing of the Babri Masjid.
Since then, nothing that the Congress has done while being in power at the Centre between 2004 and 2014 can reasonably be interpreted as bias towards the minorities, especially Muslims. The BJP's concerted attack is obviously an early salvo that makes some sense as part of an election campaign. But it has no discernible connection with facts or the historical record.
Take for instance Rahul's reconstitution of the Congress Working Committee. The revamped body has 23 members, 18 permanent invitees and 10 special invitees (of whom five are the heads of front organisations, whoever they may be). Out of the 46 named members or invitees, only two are Muslims: Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Questions have already been raised about the underrepresentation of Muslims and women. Doesn't sound like a Muslim organisation, does it?
As a matter of fact, the most serious charge that can be laid at the Congress' door is that it is quintessentially opportunist. Its opportunism stems from its history as a movement rather than a party, an all-embracing vehicle for the nationalist, anti-colonial struggle and its consequent non-ideological character. Having been a broad church, which it still remains to a large extent, it has to constantly accommodate and balance diverse ideological and programmatic positions. Which one emerges as dominant becomes most often a conjunctural outcome. That, to my mind, is a fairly accurate description of opportunism.
Yet, it is precisely this opportunism that gives the Congress two advantages. It allows it to remain flexible and, more crucially, it gives it the elbow room to remain a quintessentially liberal party " despite the problems of dynastic leadership and the lack of inner-party democracy.