Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's decision to not host an Iftar party this year to mark Ramadan has surprised quite a few quarters. Taking a sharp departure from the norm which has been followed over the years, the Congress leadership's decision to instead cater to the needy on the occasion has raised a pertinent question: Is this the beginning of the end of the 'secular' brand of politics in India?
The Congress chief's Iftar feast used to be the occasion for the 'secular-minded' parties to test their bonding. The grand-old party of India used to play the central role on these occasion with like-minded regional parties gathering around it to showcase the strength against the majoritarian camp.
Congress has lost states and not many are enthusiastic to back it today
In 2016, the situation isn't what it used to be even a year ago and the Congress top brass knows it very well. One of the main invitees of these Iftar parties in the past---the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has not been much different from the Congress when it comes to appeasing the minorities, has decided to move away from the Congress's arrangement in the wake of the West Bengal Assembly election earlier this year where Sonia's party joined hands with the CPI(M)-led Left against TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee.
A top TMC leaders even said recently that the Congress is turning increasingly irrelevant in national politics.
The Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party were also unlikely to join the Congress president's Iftaar feast ahead of next year's UP election. The two parties did not send their top leaders last year as well.
It will not be an overstatement to say that the two regional parties are not interested to send wrong signals ahead of a very crucial election in their home state where the BJP handed them a heavy humiliation in the last general election (the SP, BSP and Congress had won just seven seats together out of 80 in that election while the rest went to the NDA).
Nitish Kumar, the other 'secular' leader, is being seen as one of the potential faces of the future anti-Modi platform instead of say, a Rahul Gandhi. He is also certainly not going to play a second-fiddle role to the Congress in days to come.
Is Congress now giving up appeasing minorities for majorities to remain in race with Modi?
There is also another angle to the story. According to observers, the Congress of late is trying to tilt more towards the majority in order to change its image among the Hindu voters so that the Narendra Modi Blitzkrieg, which is blowing it away in almost every election nowadays, can be reduced.
Recently, the Congress leaders even observed the Hindu festival of 'Nirjal Gyaras' outside the Congress headquarters in Delhi. The party is perhaps now in a mood to address the finding by the AK Antony committee that Muslim appeasement was one of the causes of its heavy defeat in the Lok Sabha election of 2014.
Following that, party president Sonia and her deputy Rahul Gandhi have been found celebrating Holi festival, greeting people on Diwali and paying visits to temples---something which observers believe is a conscious effort to course correction. The cancellation of the Iftaar this year is also a part of that process, they feel.
While Congress cancels the 'secular' politics, the RSS embraces it
The Congress's decision to scrap the Iftar party this year and the hosting of the same by the RSS's Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM) on July 2 to correct its own anti-minority image point to the changing realities of Indian politics. Envoys of as many as 140 countries, including Pakistani High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit (though it was later withdrawn), have been invited to the occasion.
Though the MRM leadership has appealed not to see this initiative from a political angle but the fact that the RSS has started hosting Iftaar party of international stature after Modi's taking over suggests that like the Congress, the saffron camp is also eager to bag the minorities' support to emerge as a real substitute for the 130-year-old Congress today.
In both course-correction projects, the RSS seems to be ahead of Congress
In both the projects of course correction, however, the RSS seems to be ahead of the Congress because of the BJP has a better political position at the moment.
The Congress has lost all big states in the country except Karnataka where also it could lose the plot in two years from now and with a poor presence in the Lok Sabha, it doesn't excite the regional parties anymore. Moreover, the way it let down the TMC supremo by allying with her arch-enemies and attacking her during the Bengal polls, it wasn't any short of a hara-kiri two years ahead of the next general election.
This also gives Modi the opportunity to get closer to the minorities and bury whatever ill-reputation he has over the Gujarat riots of 2002.