Congress president Rahul Gandhi's counter to BJP president Amit Shah's Sampark for Samarthan"inviting a select group of Muslim intellectuals to his New Delhi's Tuglaq Road residence"has not gone the way he and his party would have liked.
It should be noted that this is the Congress president's first outreach programme in preparation for 2019 parliamentary polls. Inviting around a dozen Muslim intellectuals for an informal, free and frank discussion also had another significance: Coming after months of sustained and conscious moves by Rahul and Congress to project that he was not only a Hindu but a "janeu dhari Hindu", a "Shiv bhakt" who loves going to temples and seeking blessings of presiding deities in states where elections were due.
He was also trying to show that his faith in his religion was so strong that he was willing to take the tough and treacherous trek to Kailash Mansarovar. It's a different matter"due to lack of relevant mandatory clearances"that the Congress president is yet to embark on the yatra despite announcing about it at a public rally in Delhi.
Second, even as Rahul was initiating a Muslim outreach programme, he was conscious not to be seen in company of anyone from the known set of Muslim community leaders. It's a fact that even though all those invited for discussion over tea and snacks with Congress president belonged to the Muslim community, one wonders whether some of them would like to be labelled Muslim intellectuals or be happy to be branded as "historians, administrators, lawyers with leftist and secularist leanings". They may have sharp opinions about various issues and border on dislike for the Modi regime and BJP but to be stamped as part of a specific community may not be the best thing for them.
In fact, Delhi-based historian Syed Irfan Habib reportedly told Rahul the Congress should raise issues of concern to all the people of India and not just Muslims: Employment and the atmosphere of fear. Then some of them talked about the "wrongs which Congress has committed over the years" and asked "will the party learn?" He was also asked about his temple visits.
Some others asked the Congress president to explain his commitment to minority issues and the party using Muslims for votes when needed in elections.
Clearly, Rahul and rest of his party leadership wouldn't have liked these kinds of news reports from what was supposed to be an excellent PR-cum-outreach exercise. Rahul's earlier idea to hold an iftar party at a five-star hotels designed to showcase grand Opposition unity and reach out to Muslim leadership brought more negative headlines and stories than positive ones, which could influence political preferences of voters across India and the Muslim community in particular.
It appears as though Rahul and his party strategists are unable to decide how far they can take their new found soft-Hindutva approach and what they should do to regain confidence of the Muslim community. Rahul began his temple yatra with last year's Uttar Pradesh Assembly election and continued to do so in Gujarat and Karnataka but he couldn't impress voters with his Hindu credentials. The questions asked by some of the invitees at his residence Wednesday are indicative of the concerns in the community on this count.
It should be noted that at a conclave organised by a media house, Sonia Gandhi said the BJP had succeeded in portraying Congress as a "Muslim party". In response to a question if Rahul's temple visits were aimed at not letting the BJP monopolise the Hindutva movement, she had said, "There is a bit of that because we have been pushed into a corner. Perhaps rather than going to a temple quietly, maybe, a little more public focus on that."
The problem for Congress is that Muslims are not impressed either. During UPA-II only two Muslims, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid were ministers. However, many count Azad as the representative from Kashmir. Like UPA-II, there are two Muslim ministers in the Modi government: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and MJ Akbar. Najma Heptullah, who was a minister at the Centre, is now a governor.
The other problem which Congress faces in immediate aftermath of Rahul's Muslim outreach programme is Shashi Tharoor's highly controversial and potentially polarising statement that India would become "Hindu Pakistan" under Narendra Modi: "If they (BJP) win a repeat in the Lok Sabha, our democratic Constitution as we understand it will not survive as they will have all the elements they need to tear apart the Constitution of India and write a new one¦ that new one will be the one which will enshrine principles of Hindu rashtra that will remove equality for minorities, that'll create a Hindu Pakistan..."
The former Union minister tried to clarify his statement through a Facebook post but only ended up reiterating what he said earlier. While Congress strategists may fret over its prospects, it seems Tharoor is succeeding in undoing what Rahul aspired to achieve by hosting an interaction with Muslim intellectuals.