"If we want to win, we will have to beat the BJP in their own style BJP leaders participate in almost all traditional festivals, and that connects them to the masses" - J.P. Dhanopia, Congress spokesperson
The Congress seems to be anxious to show off its Hindu side. Soon after party vice president Rahul Gandhi visited Banke Bihari temple in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, on September 22, his local MLA Pradeep Mathur assured him: “Now that you have visited this temple, the wind will turn. It will blow in your favour and in favour of the Congress.”
A few days earlier, Rahul had trekked to the Kedarnath shrine soon after returning from his “mysterious” sabbatical. “Usually, I don’t ask for anything while visiting a temple. I went inside, and I received a fire-like energy,” said Rahul.
Course correction, said some analysts. The Congress is back with ‘soft hindutva’, they opined. They had reason. After the drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Congress veteran A.K. Antony had raised a moot point. “Some sections of society have an impression that the party is inclined to certain communities or organisations,” said Antony, who was assigned to analyse the decimation at the hustings. Madhya Pradesh, since the formation of the state in 1956, had largely been a Congress bastion. Things changed in 2003, after two consecutive governments under Digvijaya Singh.
In the 2003 assembly elections, Singh, too, tried playing ‘soft hindutva’. He invoked the cow in the cow belt. Cow’s urine, he vouched, was the secret of his energy. He proclaimed himself as a gau mata bhakt (devotee of Mother Cow) and lambasted the Vajpayee government for not imposing a national ban on cow slaughter.
The mooing, however, did not do the wooing. The BJP romped to power in Madhya Pradesh under Uma Bharti. Thereon, the Congress has been cowed down in all elections. The most recent trouncing was in the municipal elections in August. The BJP swept the polls, despite the Vyapam scam, and wrested Congress strongholds.
Enough is enough, decided the Congress leadership. So it was time again for soft hindutva. As an auspicious first step, they installed a Ganesha idol at the party’s headquarters, Indira Bhavan, in Bhopal.
Then, the building, which had an eerie look by evening, was decked up with fairy lights. A Durga puja pandal was put up and there was aarti for the goddess every evening.
The man at the helm of the ‘course correction’ is the party’s state president, Arun Yadav. Yadav, an OBC leader, is the Congress's answer to the BJP, which has had three OBC chief ministers in the past 13 years—Uma Bharti, Babulal Gour and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The OBCs constitute about 55 per cent of the state's population.
Yadav says he understands the frustration of Congress workers who have been feeling helpless about the BJP’s covert campaign to brand the Congress a pro-Muslim party. “We are committed to the ideology of our founding fathers. In the changed situation, however, we want to show the BJP that we, as Hindus, are not less religious than them,” he says.
Congress spokesperson J.P. Dhanopia said: “If we want to win, we will have to beat the BJP in their own style. BJP leaders participate in almost all traditional festivals, and that connects them to the masses.”
Yadav started his statewide Janvishwas padyatra in the auspicious week of Durga puja, from Amarkantak, a pilgrimage spot in the far east of Madhya Pradesh. It is predominantly a tribal region, where the sangh parivar has made deep inroads in the past decade.
The river Narmada originates from the hills of Amarkantak, and Yadav started his padyatra with a brass urn carrying water from the river. He will pour the holy water on the shivling at the Mahakal temple in Ujjain when he ends his padyatra next year. Ujjain is the mythological high seat of the lord Shiva. While Yadav begins his day with Gandhi bhajans, his fellow leaders hold morning prayers at local temples where the padyatra contingent halts at night. The other phases of padyatra, too, will start from holy sites across the state.
Notably, Yadav occasionally wears an orange kurta with a tricolour khadi towel over his shoulders. “To earn the people's faith, we, like a good preacher, have to speak their language,” he says. “If I want to remind people about Gandhian values and the idea of India, it has to be in their lingo.” Can Yadav, considered an underdog, pull it off? Now, that’s the big question.
The first meeting of the party's new state executive under Yadav did make news recently. For wrong reasons, though—the absence of Congress heavyweights Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia. The disregard for Yadav was apparent.
Yadav, however, is focusing on galvanising the grassroots. The ordinary party worker is happy that the leadership has started addressing issues they have been raising over the past few years, says Virendra Diwedi, who is on the executive committee. “A leader walking from village to village is a treat to our eyes,” he says.
And, Yadav is quite determined. On the very first day of his padyatra, the police tried to make him take an SUV while crossing the tribal areas of Amarkantak where Maoists are active. But, Yadav kept walking. “It was the state government's ploy to derail the padyatra,” he alleges. “The police persuaded almost all of my fellow padyatris to jump inside cars, but I resisted their efforts.”
District leaders of the party are holding mass religious meets like Ram kathas and Bhagwad kathas. “I participate in aartis and religious discourses. It makes me look sensitive towards the Hindu community,” says Prabhat Purohit, a young Congress leader of Tikamgarh district.
While Madhya Pradesh is home to some national leaders of the Congress, the state unit of the party has been a victim of their towering egos and personality clashes.
The BJP took advantage of the situation, and propped up Shivraj Singh Chouhan as its leader. With his humility and pro-poor policies, he won over the masses. And, they gave him a hat-trick.
Many in the Congress state unit feel the people have not forgotten the “misrule” under Digvijaya. Though he has declared that he will never again be a chief ministerial candidate, his mere presence provides ammo for the BJP, says a former Congress minister.
What about the other bigwigs? Journalist Rajesh Sirothia says Kamal Nath and Scindia nurture chief ministerial dreams, but are unwilling to toil at the grassroots level.
So, it looks like Yadav is treading the only path left—seeking divine intervention.