Congress leader A.K. Antony revived a long-pending, and much-needed debate in the Congress by acknowledging on Friday that the electorate’s faith in the party’s commitment to secularism had “eroded slightly” because of a perception that it favoured the minorities.
Mr. Antony’s controversial remarks were made at a function in Thiruvananthapuram in the context of the need for the Congress to rethink its strategy to halt the BJP’s march in his home state of Kerala. He said: “Some sections of the society have an impression that the party is inclined towards the minority communities.”
But what is a growing reality in Kerala is true elsewhere in the country, as the results of the recent general elections have demonstrated.
“He [Antony] is one of the senior-most leaders,” party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed told journalists on Saturday, adding, “What he has said and observed will certainly be discussed and debated.”
Meanwhile in Goa, another party general secretary Digvijaya Singh added to the debate by saying that the Congress had always fought ideological battles in the country but then added cryptically that “sometimes what happens is that people do the politics of convenience in their lust for power. This damages the Congress.”
Some leaders, knowing what a hot potato the issue of secularism and the Congress’s approach to minorities is, were very guarded. The former Union Minister Manish Tewari said “without talking to Mr. Antony it will be inappropriate to comment” on his remarks.
On Saturday, the Congress “officially” neither endorsed nor criticised Mr .Antony. However, party sources said a general secretary had more than six months back written to Mr. Antony himself on this subject, expressing the apprehension that the BJP would project the Congress as a pro-Muslim party and try and exploit this politically.
The Congress leader had argued that since Hindus are divided along caste lines, it helps the BJP propaganda to paint each Hindu caste grouping as a minority while presenting Muslims as a monolithic minority.
On Friday, Mr. Antony said that “there appears to be slight erosion in people's faith in secularism of the Congress. This has to be examined. It is vital for the party to regain the faith of the people to move forward.”
He also stressed that some people felt that though the Congress professed and practised secularism, “the party has some slants... that all sections of people do not receive equal justice. This has to be removed.”
Mr. Antony has triggered a debate at a time when he has been asked, with the help of three others, to head a committee to conduct an introspection exercise to pinpoint the reasons for the Congress’s electoral debacle and find a way to restore the morale and strength of its members.
This is not the first time that Mr. Antony has made such a remark: in July 2003, senior party leader K. Karunakaran had demanded that Mr. Antony, then the Kerala Chief Minister, withdraw a controversial statement he had made on minorities, similar to the one he made on Friday.
Mr. Karunakaran, at that time, told Ms. Gandhi that the Congress leadership should make an independent assessment of the impact such a statement would have on the party's electoral prospects.
In 2004, shortly after he became the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had said at his first press conference in September that “I am opposed to fundamentalism of all types — whether it is fundamentalism from the Left or fundamentalism from the Right.”
Mr. Antony’s remarks on Friday prove that the Congress, a decade on, is still grappling with the same problem.