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Why is Rahul Gandhi visiting so many Hindu temples?

Why is Rahul Gandhi visiting so many Hindu temples?
From Al Jazeera - November 30, 2017

It is election season in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its residents will vote to elect their state assembly on December 9 and 14. The vote has thrown opposition politicians into feverish activity.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, for example, has been busy visiting temples in Gujarat although until recently, he was perceived to be a deracinated Hindu, disinterested in religion and its politics. He has already paid obeisance at 21 temples, including Somnath, Akshardham, Ambaji, Dwakadhish, Chotila, Khodal Dham and Dasi Jivan temples, and the list is still likely to grow.

His temple hops in Gujarat has caused a frisson, not least because the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has questioned the sincerity of Gandhi's show of religiosity.

Congress is challenging an anti-Muslim label

The BJP fears that its veritable monopoly on the religious realm could come under threat. Ever since it initiated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1986, it took to posing as the sole spokesperson of Hindus, articulating their grievances, often imagined, and mocking all its rivals for pampering religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

Gandhi has visited temples before, but never so many in such a short time-span. He hopes his display of religiosity will dispel the notion that his party is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. This is the charge the BJP has often levelled against the Congress and the label has stuck.

Gandhi wishes to get rid of the anti-Hindu label as a preemptive measure against possible attempts of the BJP to polarise the electorate between Hindus and Muslims. This has been the BJP's strategy in Gujarat since 2002. In that year horrific riots broke out creating deep fissures between Hindus and Muslims.

In 2002 Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat. That year during the state assembly election, he positioned himself as the protector of Hindus and dubbed Congress a pro-Muslim party. He reaped a rich harvest of votes.

But the political context of 2017 is remarkably different that of 2002. For one, Modi does not rule Gujarat. For another, the economic policies initiated under his premiership have slowed the economy, leading to discontent. Gandhi ca not hope to turn the discontent into votes for the Congress until he denies the BJP the opportunity to tag him anti-Hindu.

There are already memes doing the rounds on social media stoking Hindu fears of Muslims. Gandhi wants to show through his temple visits that he is no less a Hindu than BJP leaders, but not the kind who has to prove his Hinduness by demonising Muslims.

This is a message Gandhi seeks to convey not only in Gujarat, but also across India. After all, India will have its parliamentary elections in 2019. Five years ago, the Congress decided it must correct the popular perception that it is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim to arrest its decline.

Ostensibly, it might seem the centrist party has lurched to the right. Ghandi's temple visits should have had secular-liberal Hindus and Muslims criticise Gandhi for imitating the BJP's tactics of mobilising Hindu support. But neither of these groups have spoken out.

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