For some politicians, all that matters is being on the winning side

Did the ground reality of Maharashtra, the hate speeches since the Fadnavis-Shinde combine took over; the communal clashes and the selective use of the bulldozer, at all feature in Ashok Chavan’s or Milind Deora’s minds?
Last Updated 21 February 2024, 09:00 IST

It was the height of the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. Congress candidate and Nanded strongman Ashok Chavan stepped out of his bungalow for his first engagement of the day: a meeting with the local unit of a pan-Indian Muslim organisation. This was one engagement the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra wanted to keep low-key.

The scenario was quite different in the 1980s. Murli Deora’s famous late-night election processions used to be organised by Muslims. Kingpin of the Congress for years, Deora would wave out to the families looking out from balconies above, as his procession wound its way through the narrow lanes of the old Muslim quarter in his South Mumbai constituency.

Be it Deora’s open connect with Muslims at a time when ‘votebanks’ weren’t a term of abuse, or Chavan’s covert relationship in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah era, both Congressmen depended on the votes of the largest minority. Milind Deora, not half as approachable as his father, inherited Murli Deora’s ‘votebank’ and went on to become two-time Congress MP from South Mumbai from 2004 to 2014. Chavan too, benefited from the legacy of his father, Shankarrao Chavan, twice Chief Minister of Maharashtra and Union minister multiple times, whose association with the Congress lasted from when he was a young man in 1956 until he died in 2004.

Did the thought of these loyal ‘votebanks’ come to mind at all when Ashok Chavan and Milind Deora decided to cross over to the other side? Surely, they knew that these voters would not follow them. The two parties these khandani (dynast) Congressmen joined have made no bones about their antipathy towards Muslims.

Of course, both former MPs probably knew they would be nominated to the Rajya Sabha and, hence, would be spared the ordeal of seeking votes in their constituencies. But there’s no doubt that both will have to deliver the constituencies of Nanded and South Mumbai to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Will you be able to look your Nanded voters in the eye and shout ‘Jai Sri Ram’?’’ Chavan was asked on a Marathi TV channel. His reply, that Ram didn’t belong to any one party, and that he’d put up posters of Ram with the slogan: ‘Ishwar Allah tero naam’ befits a Congressman. That line would not please the BJP.

Questions about the ideology of the party he is joining have followed Chavan in a way they haven’t followed other Congressmen who crossed over. Milind Deora is too lightweight. The reason for Chavan’s grilling could be that his initiation into politics was through the Congress; or the high posts he’s held in it; or because he was the last man standing against the 2014 Modi wave (the second seat, Hingoli, won by the Congress in those Lok Sabha elections was also partially credited to Chavan’s influence). Since 2014, Chavan’s election speeches have focused on the need to ‘save the Constitution’. It’s legitimate to ask him what happened to that concern. Forget the abstract idea of secularism; did the ground reality of Maharashtra, the hate speeches since the Fadnavis-Shinde combine took over; the communal clashes and the selective use of the bulldozer, at all feature in Chavan’s or Deora’s minds?

Of course, it’s not as if the Congress was some beacon of secularism all the years that it was in power. The list of wrongs committed against Muslims by India’s oldest party is long and well-known — recurring riots, impunity for communal police forces, the backwardness of the community, indiscriminate arrests on fake terror charges, etc. Indeed, whenever an alternative was available, Muslims chose it, as seen in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Delhi, and Bihar. However, even though it barely gave representation to minorities, at its ideological core, the Congress is inclusive. But the rapidity with which senior Congress leaders have switched to the BJP, makes one wonder how strong is that core.

As rats desert the sinking ship of the Congress and opposition parties queue up to ally with the BJP, what happens to the millions of Indians who still believe in the old ‘unity in diversity’ motto? They need to ask: do the so-called Lohiaite Nitish Kumar, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)’s Jayant Choudhry who organised Jat-Muslim bhaichara sammelans before the 2022 Uttar Pradesh polls, Chandrababu Naidu and Ashok Chavan endorse the bulldozing of dargahs and closure of madarsas that BJP chief ministers boast about? Do they share the dream of a Hindu Rashtra? Or is being on the winning side all that matters?

Perhaps the answer lies in another old dictum: forget politicians, go to the people. Temples holding iftaarsmosques hosting Hindu weddingsSikhs and Hindus building a mosque — far away from political parties, ‘unity in diversity’ is alive and kicking.

Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

(Published 21 February 2024, 09:00 IST)

Follow us on