Rahul Gandhi’s Vision for India Goes Beyond Modi and the Election

Rahul Gandhi’s Vision for India Goes Beyond Modi and the Election

Congress didn’t send any representatives to the temple’s inauguration, and I had expected Gandhi to speak about Ayodhya, which lies, after all, in Uttar Pradesh. But he barely mentioned it, even in Varanasi, a city facing a potential reprise of Ayodhya. The morning after his speech there, I visited a quarter called Pilikothi, following a sequence of lanes, each framed by so many tall tenements that there was something canyonlike about them. It was a Sunday, but Pilikothi echoed with the tack-tack of sari looms. The sound drifted into the basement in which Abdul Batin Nomani, the mufti of Varanasi, sat at a low desk. Behind him were shelves of theological volumes. When he pulled a book out to illustrate a point, his hand didn’t hesitate for a second.

The title of mufti, or jurist, has been in Nomani’s family since 1927, and he has filled the role for more than two decades. In that time, he said, the B.J.P. has spread so much hate that it has corroded even the possibility of amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims. You can be arrested for offering the namaz in public, or for being a Muslim man marrying a Hindu woman, or for running your butcher shop during Hindu festivals. You could be lynched on a whisper that you’re carrying beef, or have your house bulldozed on suspicion of being a rioter, or be hunted by mobs goaded by B.J.P. politicians calling for murder. Nomani told me about the head of a Hindu monastery nearby, and how they would invite one another to their religious functions. “Then, slowly, his mind turned,” Nomani said. “He must have been convinced that to talk to people like me is wrong.”

Nomani heads the committee of the Gyanvapi Mosque, another centuries-old structure that the Hindu right aims to replace with a temple. Weeks before I met Nomani, a court allowed Hindus to worship in the mosque’s basement, similar to what happened in Ayodhya in 1986. Varanasi’s Muslims are fearful, Nomani said. Wouldn’t the same cascade of consequences ensue? Wouldn’t other mosques surely follow? When the yatra swung by, Nomani told a local Congress representative he would welcome a meeting with Gandhi. It never transpired. Nomani wondered why Gandhi didn’t even speak about the issue and directly confront the B.J.P.’s divisive politics. “Someone could have called and reassured us: ‘Don’t worry, we’re with you,’” Nomani said. He regards Gandhi with sympathy. “I believe he wants to do the right thing, and that he is against this culture of hate,” he said. “But he’s weak. His party is weak. He can’t do anything.”

From Prayagraj, the yatra headed to Amethi, a town a couple of hours to the north. I had last visited in 2009, when it was still a stronghold of Congress’s first family, and I remembered the fields of winter mustard, yellow till the horizon, on the town’s outskirts and the wishbone layout of its three main roads. Gandhi won resoundingly that year. But in 2014, when his margin shrank, he must have seen the incoming tide of Hindu nationalism. Sanjay Singh, a local Congress worker, recalled that, on vote-counting day, Gandhi sounded dispirited as the results trickled in, telling his colleagues “the politics of this state is beyond my understanding.” In 2019, the B.J.P. flipped Amethi. If Gandhi hadn’t simultaneously run from another seat, in Kerala, he wouldn’t be in Parliament at all.

The yatra’s schedule included an evening rally, so I spent the afternoon in Singh’s house in a village nearby. A stern-eyed man with a ramrod bearing, he wore a spotless white shirt and trousers, and he had tucked a Congress streamer around his neck like a cravat. He lamented Congress’s loss of Amethi, but he wasn’t surprised. Between 2014 and 2019, Gandhi visited Amethi less and less, dispatching his advisers instead. Still, Singh felt almost guilty that Amethi voted for the B.J.P. Last year he had a chance to meet Gandhi, he said, and asked him to run from Amethi again: “I told him, ‘Whatever mistake we made, we’re ready to rectify.’” A few weeks after I met Singh, though, Gandhi declared that he would stick to his constituency in Kerala.

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