Indian supporters of the Congress Party shout slogans after the party named Rahul Gandhi president, outside Congress headquarters in New Delhi on Dec. 11, 2017. (Photo Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
Rahul Gandhi, who now leads India’s once mighty majority-Hindu Congress Party, has been targeted over the Catholicism of his Italian-born mother.
He is a great grandson of India’s first prime minster, Jawaharlal Nehru, and a grandson of the late national leader Indira Gandhi.
Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1965 met his Italian future wife Sonia at a restaurant in the university town of Cambridge, England.
They later married and settled in India.
A commercial pilot by profession, Rajiv would later become prime minister after his mother, Indira, was assassinated in 1984.
Sonia, now 71, hails from a Catholic family in Vicenza, which is located near Venice in northeastern Italy.
She reluctantly took up the leadership of the Congress Party in 1997, six years after Rajiv was assassinated.
The Indian National Congress, commonly referred to as the Congress Party, was formed in 1885.
Congress struggled against British colonial rule and governed India for most of the period since its independence in 1947.
But it was trounced in 2014 national elections by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The leadership change from mother to son comes as campaigning for an election in the state of Gujarat has buoyed Congress amid signs that the BJP’s decades-long hold on power there is slipping.
But the BJP and others have made a point of questioning Rahul’s religious status.
Congress supporters celebrate outside the residence of Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi after he was elected president of India’s Congress party. (Photo IANS)
Is he Hindu or Catholic?
Politically motivated mischief-makers suggest that he follows the Catholicism his mother.
Political analyst Vidya Subrahmaniam believes much of the Congress Party has lacked the courage to state firmly that Rahul’s personal religious beliefs should not be a political issue.
Subrahmaniam complained that, instead of doing so, Congress had circulated photos of Rahul wearing a sacred thread denoting high caste Hindu Brahmins.
Prabhakar Tirkey, national president of the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh ecumenical Christian forum, views the raising of Rahul’s religion as blatant sectarian.
Political gain was sought through the emotive exploitation of voters, he said.
A proportion of poorly educated Hindus would not want to be ruled by a non-Hindu, Tirkey noted.
On Nov. 29 Gandhi visited Gujarat’s ’s famous Somnath Shiva temple in Gujarat, which has a tradition of keeping a record of important visitors.
Gandhi signed a visitor register that was later portrayed as one meant for non-Hindus. Gandhi, however, refuted this and maintained that he is, indeed, a Hindu.
For good measure, supporters posted photos on social media of him following rituals of the Hindu priestly caste.
Tirkey noted that hardline Indian Hindu-nationalists denigrated Muslims and Christians as essentially ‘foreigners’ and therefore second-class citizens.
Senior Catholic Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh state, said personal religious beliefs should not be a matter of political debate.
And Catholic social activist V. Parmar believes voters in the Gujarat election will be more mindful of their own practical needs than Rahul’s religion.