Rahul's temple trips unnerve BJP

Since 2013, the BJP has been running a campaign painting the Congress a pro-Muslim party and it somewhat succeeded in creating such a perception. It cost the Grand Old Party dearly in 2014. With just 15 months left for the next general election, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi appears to be going for a course correction as he tries to beat the BJP at its own game in Gujarat. According to media reports, Rahul has, in the run-up to the elections, visited 15 temples in Gujarat until mid-October.

Last week, Rahul declared that he is a devotee of Lord Shiva. "I am a devotee of Lord Shiva. Let them (BJP) say whatever they want... My truth is with me," Rahul told reporters in Becharaji when asked about the BJP's criticism of his visits to various shrines such as Akshardham, Ambaji, Khodiyar Maa, Dwarkadish, Meghmaya, Maa Bahuchar and climbing around 1,000 steps to propitiate Maa Chamunda in Chotila.

Last year, pictures of his visits to Kedarnath and Banke Bihari (Vrindavan) with a tilak on his forehead, were splashed across the media. Though critics may slam him for furthering a "communal" agenda, his attempts to shed excessive pro-minority tag are not without reason. For over 20 years, the Muslims have been shunning the Congress and voting regional parties because the Grand Old Party lost considerable Hindu support.

Understandably, the BJP is rattled by Rahul's temple forays. Otherwise why should several party stalwarts chose to attack him? Last week, BJP legislator from Ujjain Chintamani Malviya mocked Rahul for his "divine" mission comparing him to a "nagar vadhu" (courtesan) on Facebook. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said: "Now Rahul 'baba' is offering prayers at various temples... a person who has never lifted a 'puja ki thali' is applying tilak and wearing big garlands without having knowledge about the great culture of this country."

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said: "As far as Rahul Gandhi's temple visits are concerned, I am surprised. Rahul's 'pakhand' and 'dhong' (hypocrisy and sham) is not going to work. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi tweeted that Rahul's temple visits are "to bluff voters". Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel asked why Rahul is visiting temples ahead of elections?

All non-communist politicians make beelines to temples during elections and why should Rahul's visits touch the BJP's raw nerve? Is it that any thaw in communal polarisation will electorally benefit the Congress? While it is too early to conclude that playing the Hindu card will help the Congress in Gujarat? Signs are that some groups have become jittery.

Coinciding with Rahul's rendezvous with the gods was the appearance of mysterious red "X" marks on Muslim houses in some localities. Subsequently, a video clip showing the minority community in a derogatory light surfaced. The BJP has denied any hand behind the video clip.

Around the same time sex CDs implicating 23-year-old Hardik Patel, leader of Patel Ana-
mat Andolan Samiti, who has been negotiating with the Cong-
ress for a poll-pact, have surfaced. While the BJP has unleashed a high voltage campaign powered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rahul is the Cong ress' flag-bearer in Gujarat, mak-
ing it a proxy war between the Nehru-Gandhi scion and Modi.

Observers see a larger political message in Rahul's bid to seek divine blessings. Soon after the 2014 electoral debacle, Sonia Gandhi had tasked senior leader A K Antony with dissecting the cause behind the party's rout. One of the reasons cited by Antony was the party's perceived pro-minority tilt, alienating the majority community. Despite the Muslim "appeasement", label, the former continues to bat for regional parties.

Belatedly though, Rahul has realised that sans Hindu votes the Congress cannot become an attractive proposition to the minorities. While many in the AICC endorse his Hindu card, some are concerned over certain tactical flaws in Rahul's political strategy like pitting himself against Modi in a state micro-managed by two sons of the soil. Snatching the state from the jaws of these two powerful Gujarati political sharks is not an easy task for Rahul fighting a crucial match with a rag-tag 'Lagaan' team.

There is also concern that Rahul has been over-pitching issues like GST and demonetisation, enabling Modi to address lapses. Three years ago, Rahul ran an aggressive campaign against the controversial Land Acquisition Bill and Modi quietly buried it, escaping the wrath of agitating farmers.

Similarly, as Rahul began to connect with people on GST, the government tweaked the tax law taking the sting out of his campaign. Such issues should have been kept for 2019. According to a party mandarin, there is also disquiet over Rahul's attack on some corporate houses; not a politically correct stand, after all, corporate support is critical in electoral politics.

As the AICC is preparing for a generational transition, some leaders feel that engaging the BJP on competitive Hindutva politics is a bad idea. Rather pin the government down on the state of the economy. All said and done, the Congress may or may not win Gujarat, but much to his credit, Rahul has brought the party back in the reckoning after a long spell of inertia.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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