The recent defeat of right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in three important assembly elections in India has refreshed hopes for the ouster of Hindu supremacists from power next year.
The BJP, which currently rules India, suffered humiliating defeat in state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
The party held power in these states, which are part of the Hindi heartland. The party also performed poorly in Telangana and Mizoram, but the stakes were highest in those three states where the electorate clearly rejected its agenda to turn India into a Hindu theocracy.
The BJP's anti-Muslim and antisecular rhetoric had no takers in the states. This comes as a big jolt to the BJP, which hopes for a second national term in the general election scheduled for next year.
Attacks on religious minorities have grown ever since the BJP came to power with a majority under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. In order to polarize the Hindu majority, the BJP intensified its campaigning on controversial issues aimed at creating the fear of Muslims and "othering" Christians, Adivasis (Indigenous peoples of India), and Dalits (so-called Untouchables).
The opposition Congress party that claims to be a secular alternative to the BJP has won more seats in these three states and will form governments with or without allies. So much so that Modi had to accept the defeat.
While it is encouraging to see this happen in the Hindi heartland, which has traditionally provided a strong support base for the BJP rejecting sectarian politics, the fight isn’t over yet. In other words, the BJP is down, but not out.
The general election still looms as the politics of hate continues to simmer. A minor spark can turn into a ball of fire if civil society or liberal democrats do not pay attention.
Jubilation apart, it is time to hold Congress to account. The party tried to outscore the BJP by peddling soft Hindu nationalism in these states to win the elections. And Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi missed no opportunity to project himself as a practising Hindu.
Though there is no harm visiting Hindu temples or practising Hinduism, Congress failed to offer any commitment to contain Hindu extremism if ever it came to power. The party focused purely on other issues, such as development and employment. This is absolutely fine, but the Congress’s weakness in assuring minorities that it will take Hindu extremists involved in violence to task is certainly problematic.
It is pertinent to mention that Congress patronized a controversial leader, Kamal Nath, from Madhya Pradesh. The entire election campaign was run by him in the state and he is being credited for the defeat of BJP. This is despite the fact that he had assured voters that he would promote religious tourism in the state if his party was elected to power.
Nath, a former Union government minister, has been linked to the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Thousands of Sikhs were killed across India following the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
Members of the slain leader’s Congress party were seen instigating mobs involved in the massacre. Nath was allegedly one of them. According to news reports, he was witnessed instigating a violent crowd outside a gurdwara in New Delhi. At least two Sikhs were roasted alive, allegedly in his presence.
Though he was never charged, he was greeted by angry Sikh protesters during his visit to Toronto in 2010. Then New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton boycotted his events.
In 2016, Nath was forced to resign as the Congress party official in charge for Punjab following protests by those seeking justice for 1984.
It is hypocritical on the part of the Congress to denounce the BJP as “divisive” while at the same time it continues to shield political figures such as Nath. One must not forget that the Congress party introduced an era of impunity for mass murders in Indian politics and the BJP only took advantage of that in the years to come.
In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat witnessed one of the worst massacres directed against the Muslims. Testimonies of survivors prove that similar methods were applied on Muslims that were previously used against Sikhs in 1984.
Had justice been done to the Sikhs, the events of 2002 likely wouldn’t have occurred. Modi who was the chief minister of the state back, is widely seen as being complicit in the anti-Muslim massacre. Like Nath, he wasn’t charged either, but that’s how the system works in India and unfortunately, Congress is not going to change it.
The refusal on part of the Congress to accept its responsibility in the 1984 massacre and shamelessly projecting Nath as a leader in Madhya Pradesh only reflects that.
Those who are celebrating the defeat of BJP must also press upon the Congress to prove its secular credentials by removing Nath from the party and holding a fresh inquiry against him for whatever his involvement might be in the 1984 carnage.
Congress must also start taking stringent action against Hindu extremists active in these three states and ban those organizations that promote hatred. A beginning has to be made if Congress really wants to provide a real alternative to the BJP before the 2019 election. Otherwise, these results will end up becoming another illusion.