The Congress party should make bringing in a Uniform Civil Code their 2019 electoral plank
Yesterday, a Sessions Court in Delhi acquitted an 18 year old of charges of rape and kidnapping under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). The sole basis for his acquittal was that he is a Muslim man. If he were of any other religion he would have been convicted. The court’s reasoning is that Muslim Personal Law allows a girl who is post-puberty to provide consent to marriage and conjugation in marriage. Hence, Muslim Personal Law is in contradiction with POCSO. I do not know if he was therefore acquitted because the accused is always acquitted when laws are in conflict, or if he was acquitted because personal law always trumps other law when they are in conflict. Either way, it is clear that if the boy was not a Muslim, Muslim Personal Law would not apply — presumably a 15-year old Muslim girl is incapable of consensual sex or marriage with anyone other than a Muslim man.
The Congress party is in a losing battle. It is Narendra Modi vs. Rahul Gandhi. Narendra Modi, a product of the RSS, exudes a spirit of service, so extreme that neither sleep nor family are too high a price to pay in the service of a larger cause. Rahul Gandhi exudes a sense of entitlement. So extreme, that four years shy of 50, he still claims to speak for the young. So extreme, that he thinks sloppy dressing is a sign of empathy rather than disrespect.
The Amit Shah and Modi-led BJP is a bold party that has mastered communication. It’s policies and actions are made for communication and communicated well, if not always honestly. Demonetization was a huge risk, but succeeded because it made it easy for the jaded and browbeaten to be part of something bigger, to serve the nation, by standing in line and it coupled this with social-media friendly “black money” and “digital” rhetoric. It was painful, but one of easiest ways to make progress as a nation, all together. The Congress is stale with no dynamism. They make no proactive statements. They do not have the courtesy to articulate or express their positions — not even when a gift horse like demonetization stares them in the face. They take the easy way out by using politics of disruption — in Parliament or on the streets. Even this, they do not pull off, because, really who wants to stand in the sun with Anand Sharma? They lose winning situations, and then whinge with almighty hypocrisy. Their solution to all problems is to “commit” to introspecting “deeply”, revamping the party “organization”. Of course, the best person to “lead” this effort is Rahul Gandhi.
It’s now become a received truth that the Gandhis cannot do without the Congress and the Congress cannot do without the Gandhis. All very well, but what are they going to do together in that tight embrace other than to sink?
What could possibly save them? Without charismatic leadership or sharp communication, the only possible plank left to float on are policies and issues. The problem with economic policies are that anything the Congress can do and have done, the BJP can and do co-opt and communicate better. Whether economic liberalization or deepening and broadening the welfare state.
This leaves them with social issues. This is where the BJP is the most sharply separated from the rest. In juxtaposition, The Congress can legitimately position itself as the “liberal” choice — for equal rights and treatment under the law, regardless of gender, religion, caste, sexuality, wealth or geography; for free speech and debate; for equity; for environmentally sensitive development.
Within this array, “secularism” can and must be their Brahmastra, simply because it cannot possibly be in BJP’s armory. Even now, the only organising figleaf of parties arrayed against BJP is secularism. No one will be surprised if Congress fights for secularism. But for a party at such a low ebb, it needs to show that it is serious and clear-headed about secularism. That their secularism plank is a clean break from the empty secularism of the past. That this is not just the only catch-phrase they were left with after everyone had taken every other. That this time their secularism is principled.
To do this they have to embrace their tawdry history in communalising the politics of India. Rahul must say sorry for the actions of his father, Rajiv. He needs to say that overturning the Shah Bano verdict was their big mistake. That they made things worse by overcompensating and opening up the mandir within the Babri Masjid for worship. That PV Narasimha Rao was either naive, incompetent or complicit in not intervening to prevent Babri Masjid from being demolished [in the same breath he should give Rao full credit for liberalization and put an end to the petty myth that it is Rajiv that deserves the credit, thereby also making the Congress about more than just the Gandhis].
Most of all, he should make a strong case for the Uniform Civil Code and make it central to the 2019 Congress manifesto. To show commitment, you have to show pain. It is a politically risky thing to do and the Congress will be battered from all over and within for taking such a stand. But this would be the only way to show that they are truly secular. Just as you take out the anti-aircraft battery before an air-raid, they need to take out the “pseudo” from their secular credentials before they get back into the political fray. People want to see remorse, struggle and commitment to something more than just being a Gandhi. And as a bonus, it will steal the thunder of the BJP. Remorse that is personal and painful with a poll plank that is principled and represents political pain — how might that capture the imagination of the heartland?
Rahul Gandhi has missed many opportunities to show the willingness to take a risk, to work. He should have been a Minister of State in UPA-1 and followed it up with a Cabinet position in UPA-2 (ideally Rural Development or Agriculture). He could have been bold and made himself Congress’s Chief Ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Pushing for a Uniform Civil Code in 2019 is his last chance. He may not have Modi’s words, but he has his own actions.
Alternatively, the Congress can sit back and wait for the BJP to inevitably lose power through a combination of anti-incumbency, economic malaise or hubris. But by then, it and Rahul will be under water.