Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress party, surprised both supporters and rivals with a tweet from his Hindu pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in September.

The freshwater lake is fed by the Kailash Glaciers near Mount Kailash in Tibet and is a religious place for many.

This was the first instance of any Congress president, or perhaps any prominent Indian politician, undertaking the arduous pilgrimage to what is considered the abode of Lord Shiva in Hindu mythology.

Devotees visit Mount Kailash (at an altitude of 6,600 meters in the Tibetan autonomous region of China) in the belief that circumnavigating it on foot brings good fortune.

Gandhi has made numerous visits to temples since he took over as party chief last December.

It has been widely believed that the leaders of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the right-wing outfit in power in New Delhi, frequently visit Hindu shrines to assert their Hindu nationalism, to promote their “Hindutva”, or loyal devotion to the Hindu way of life.

Critics are of the opinion that they use the Hindutva plank as a distraction to divert people’s attention from issues ranging from farm distress to unemployment.

Gandhi seems to have punctured the BJP’s over-riding claim to Hindutva by shredding its secular image for something being called “soft Hindutva”.

Abdul Shaban, Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, says: “Congress leadership seems to be desperate to resist the BJP’s concerted effort to label it a Muslim party.”

To counter the Congress strategy, the BJP upped the ante and pressed into service its hardliner Hindutva man, the head priest and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Ajay Singh Bisht, for poll campaigns.

Nevertheless, last week Congress won elections by defeating the BJP in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Losing these elections, touted by some as the semi-finals for the upcoming 2019 general elections, is a major set-back for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ,who seeks a second term in only a few months.

Badri Narayan Tiwari, Professor at GB Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh said: “Soft-Hindutva wins over the hardline Hindutva. With this narrative, Congress occupied (a) level playing field in the game which helped it to make the plight of the farmers and youngsters as electoral issues. This has changed the political discourse and will also force the BJP to revise its strategy ahead of (the) general elections.”

The Congress party’s soft Hindutva approach, along with its focus on core issues, has rung BJP alarm bells. Now, the party is reportedly holding internal meetings to fast-track corrective action before it is too late, according to one senior BJP leader.

Political analyst Shivsharan Geharwar said: “Results of these states indicate BJP is set to lose many of its seats across India. Worst performance is expected in the crucial Uttar Pradesh unless it changes its strategy.”

In the last general election in 2014, the BJP took 282 seats out of 543 nationally, and 71 out of 80 in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

However some analysts feel that by choosing to take on the BJP over Hindutva, the Congress has ignored its core ideology, something which may cost it in the long run.

Professor Shaban said, “If Congress emulates the BJP with its so-called soft-Hindutva card, religious minorities will look at other opposition parties and even secular Hindus may reject the party.”

But one Congress leader insists, “Little play of Hindutva was a tactic to woo the electorate, especially the upper caste. This does not mean that the Congress will turn to the kind of hard Hindutva practiced by the BJP and pro-Hindutva groups. We will neither kill people for cows nor target minorities; we won’t change history books or rename Mughal era cities.”

He adds, “We just want to highlight (the fact that) Congress is a party of practicing Hindus who respect all faiths.”

Hardline Hindutva versus Soft Hindutva

What makes hard Hindutva differ from soft Hindutva? There is no clear answer.

Professor Tiwari says, “Hard Hindutva, as propagated by late Hindu activist VD Savarkar, seeks to challenge the equal citizenship accorded by the Constitution to all Indians irrespective of their faith, caste and language, and to redefine it as being Hindu. It also seeks to force the minorities to accept second-class citizenship.”

According to Professor Tiwari, despite seeking Hindu unity, Hindutva supports the caste system and upper-caste dominance, whereas soft Hindutva does not believe in the caste hierarchy or assigning second-class status to religious minorities.

Ramesh Dixit, political commentator, rejects both the terms. “Hard Hindutva is nothing but the gundagiri (hooliganism) of a handful of people who seek to kill humans in the name of cows or patriotism. They never serve the cow or commoners but the interests of (corporate India). Soft Hindutva is simply the Hinduism which most Indians practice. They worship 330 million deities and live peacefully with people of diverse faiths.”

Denying the “soft-Hindutva” plank, Anshu Awasthi, Congress spokesperson, said: “Our leaders Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi also visited temples. Rahul’s prayers at religious places doesn’t mean Congress is adopting soft Hindutva. Congress believes in secularism and continues to work for all communities.”

Electoral success

Experts, divided over the electoral importance of soft Hindutva and hard Hindutva, point out that Gandhi and BJP chief Amit Shah each visited 10 temples during campaigning for assembly elections in the key states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. “These temples had a direct impact on 124 constituencies – of which Congress won 35 seats and the BJP settled for 20”, a BJP insider said.

Bisht held over 70 rallies in the three states, embracing controversy by calling Lord Hanuman a Dalit (low-caste Hindu) and promising a Ram Rajya (rule of Lord Ram).

A senior BJP leader said, “In Chhattisgarh, which Bisht often referred to as Lord Ram’s Nanihal (maternal grandmother’s home), the BJP won only six of 21 seats he campaigned for. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, BJP won only 11 of 22 seats and 15 of 21 seats respectively.”

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Sunil Shukla said: “Gandhi’s visits to Hindu shrines during elections blunted the BJP’s propaganda to cast Congress and the Gandhi family as Anti-Hindu and Pro-Muslim. With Congress’ antidote, the BJP was deprived of its trump card in distraction which is Hindutva.”

Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Rajendra Chaudhary rejects the idea of soft-Hindutva altogether, “There is no such thing (as) soft Hindutva. BJP lost because of people’s anger against job crisis, farm distress and corruption.”

BJP spokesperson Harish Srivastava also insists BJP lost due to anti-incumbency and false propaganda from Congress and not because of Bisht’s hardline Hindutva.