Why is Rahul Gandhi visiting so many Hindu temples?

The Congress Party in India is trying to shake off the pro-Muslim label it has been given by the political right.

Rahul Gandhi, Vice-President of India''s main opposition Congress Party, greets his supporters during a rally ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad
Rahul Gandhi, Vice-President of Congress Party, greets his supporters during a rally ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India [Reuters/Amit Dave]

It is election season in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its residents will vote to elect their state assembly on December 9 and 14. The vote has thrown opposition politicians into feverish activity.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, for example, has been busy visiting temples in Gujarat although until recently, he was perceived to be a deracinated Hindu, disinterested in religion and its politics. He has already paid obeisance at 21 temples, including Somnath, Akshardham, Ambaji, Dwakadhish, Chotila, Khodal Dham and Dasi Jivan temples, and the list is still likely to grow.

His temple hops in Gujarat has caused a frisson, not least because the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has questioned the sincerity of Gandhi’s show of religiosity.

Congress is challenging an anti-Muslim label

The BJP fears that its veritable monopoly on the religious realm could come under threat. Ever since it initiated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1986, it took to posing as the sole spokesperson of Hindus, articulating their grievances, often imagined, and mocking all its rivals for pampering religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

Gandhi has visited temples before, but never so many in such a short time-span. He hopes his display of religiosity will dispel the notion that his party is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. This is the charge the BJP has often levelled against the Congress and the label has stuck.

Gandhi wishes to get rid of the anti-Hindu label as a preemptive measure against possible attempts of the BJP to polarise the electorate between Hindus and Muslims. This has been the BJP’s strategy in Gujarat since 2002. In that year horrific riots broke out creating deep fissures between Hindus and Muslims.

In 2002 Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat. That year during the state assembly election, he positioned himself as the protector of Hindus and dubbed Congress a pro-Muslim party. He reaped a rich harvest of votes.

But the political context of 2017 is remarkably different that of 2002. For one, Modi doesn’t rule Gujarat. For another, the economic policies initiated under his premiership have slowed the economy, leading to discontent. Gandhi can’t hope to turn the discontent into votes for the Congress until he denies the BJP the opportunity to tag him anti-Hindu.

There are already memes doing the rounds on social media stoking Hindu fears of Muslims. Gandhi wants to show through his temple visits that he is no less a Hindu than BJP leaders, but not the kind who has to prove his Hinduness by demonising Muslims.

This is a message Gandhi seeks to convey not only in Gujarat, but also across India. After all, India will have its parliamentary elections in 2019. Five years ago, the Congress decided it must correct the popular perception that it is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim to arrest its decline.

Ostensibly, it might seem the centrist party has lurched to the right. Ghandi’s temple visits should have had secular-liberal Hindus and Muslims criticise Gandhi for imitating the BJP’s tactics of mobilising Hindu support. But neither of these groups have spoken out.

Muslims self-depoliticising

Even Muslims haven’t looked askance at Gandhi’s strategy. Take JS Bandukwala, a renowned Muslim social reformer who taught nuclear physics in a university in Gujarat. During the 2002 riots, his house was burnt down. He and his daughter managed to flee before murderous mobs could assault them.

In a recent interview, Bandukwala told me, “I want Muslims to stay out of politics because it only helps the BJP polarise society. They should not come into politics just now.”

His isn’t a solitary voice. After the Uttar Pradesh election earlier this year, several Muslim public figures advocated Bandukwala’s prescription for denying the BJP the chance of turning every election into a Hindu-Muslim contest and then winning it.

Once in power, the BJP tacitly encourages its foot soldiers to target Muslims and that pushes the Muslim community to rally behind whatever party they think can provide them with safety.

The BJP’s victory in 2014 has seen a sharp rise in attacks on cattle traders accused of either killing or consuming the meat of a cow – a sacred animal in Hinduism. Twenty-eight people have died in bovine-related violence since 2010, of which 24 were Muslim; 97 percent of all cow-related attacks which took place in the past seven years occurred after Modi came to power in 2014.

Slaughter-houses – most owned by Muslims – have been closed down because these have been deemed polluting. Muslim boys dating or marrying Hindu girls have been accused of faking love to convert their partners to Islam (tendentiously labelled “love jihad“). Muslims have also been attacked for wearing markers of Muslim identity, such as beards, skull caps and scarves.

Gujarat’s Muslims have had it even tougher. Targeted in 2002, even middle class and wealthy Muslim have shifted to areas where the community is preponderant.

Many Muslim neighbourhoods have been brought under the Disturbed Areas Act, which gives the state government the right to declare an area disturbed if it deems it prone to communal rioting. An estimated 40 percent of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, has been deemed disturbed. Amendments to the act in 2009 turned it draconian. It empowered the district authority to inquire suo motu whether a property has been secured in violation of the provisions of the act, and take it into his custody.

Muslim political activists fear the Disturbed Areas Act. They fear that their dissent could have the district authority invoke the act against them.

No wonder then, the Muslims of Gujarat wish to remain under the political radar. This is why they don’t mind Gandhi hopping from Hindu temple to another. They know their lives might not get economically transformed under a Congress government, but they can at least hope that a Congress victory can guarantee them their safety. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.