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More than just a wake-up call

Print edition : Jan 02, 2004

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If the secular parties do not get their act together and challenge the BJP comprehensively, Hindutva may well triumph in the next Lok Sabha elections.

THE results of the Assembly elections are a cause for euphoria for the Hindu Right and a grim warning of an impending catastrophe for the Indian nation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not have even dreamt a few months ago, especially after the loss of Uttar Pradesh, that it would wrest power in three Hindi-belt States. Nor could have it imagined that the Congress(I)'s bastions in the tribal belts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan would fall.

The results have given the BJP unprecedented confidence and energy, and the hope that it could march towards dominating the next Lok Sabha. Its leadership reckons the present juncture is uniquely favourable. It can exploit both the detente breaking out with Pakistan and what it thinks is a domestic economic boom, which strengthens the "feel-good" or "India-shining" factor. It calculates that it can now drive a hard bargain with the non-Congress(I), non-Left parties and form alliances to drive home its advantage.

Although the BJP's overall victory in the three States is unprecedented and impressive - and a cause of great anxiety for secularists - its gains are uneven. The BJP's win was "wave"-like only in Madhya Pradesh. The State was ripe for change after 10 years under an effete, crisis-ridden Congress(I). A number of social groups, including savarnas, Adivasis and OBCs (other backward classes), had gravitated towards the BJP. It was set to win, even without contingent advantages such as multiple splits in the non-BJP vote, favourable alliances and shrewd campaign strategies. The BJP needed a mere 2 per cent vote swing to unseat the Congress(I). It overtook it by a smashing 11 percentage points.

By contrast, in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the BJP's gains came more from contingent factors than from an affirmative vote combined with a powerful anti-Congress(I) swing. In Rajasthan, the BJP's lead was only 3.4 percentage points and in Chhattisgarh 2.7. Given the prevalent arithmetic, this translated into Assembly majorities. Yet, in neither State would the BJP have won a majority (in Rajasthan, a crushing 120:56 lead) without numerous contingent factors. Had the anti-BJP vote not been divided - this is of course a hypothetical, what-if, question, but a heuristically relevant one - the secular parties would have won a convincing majority in Chhattisgarh. And in Rajasthan, there would have been a hung Assembly with the Congress(I) barely three seats away from the BJP.

This debunks the BJP's claim that it won all three States (what then explains Delhi?) on account of its superior "governance", and its "development" performance, and the "modern", "forward-looking" character of the Vajpayee leadership. It is ludicrous, in the first place, to imagine that the performance of the NDA government would be highly rated by the people just when public services are being withdrawn - in particular, the healthcare and food distribution systems are in a state of near-collapse, and primary education is in deep crisis; and when unemployment is rising at unprecedented rates - and jobs are growing at half the rate of population increase. It is equally hard to comprehend why costly tollways (which is what the Golden Quadrilateral project is about) should signify successful "development".

Madhya Pradesh has a poor record of power supply and road maintenance. Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh do not. Under Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan saw a good drought relief programme and generated seven million person days of work. Under Ajit Jogi, Chhattisgarh witnessed furious road construction, a hefty rise in school enrolment and an attempt to improve primary health provision. The excellent analysis by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows that a higher percentage (51 to 57) of people in the two States were satisfied with the Congress(I)'s performance than were dissatisfied (36 to 39 points).

The factors behind the BJP's victory are its exploitation of the Hindutva platform, effective caste alliances and election micro-management. Although it did not overtly campaign on the Ayodhya issue, the BJP used Hindutva in a variety of ways: in choosing candidates, deploying Hindutva symbols and personalities identified with the temple agitation, VHP-RSS supervision of the election campaign, and not least, door-to-door canvassing by what might be called "election kar sevaks" that is, RSS-VHP volunteers specially despatched from Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Vajpayee was reportedly personally keen that the BJP's chief ministerial candidates in the three States should all be Hindutva zealots. It is no coincidence that both Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje Scindia entered Parliament-level politics in the mandir-driven 1989 elections. Raman Singh and Dilip Singh Judev are both hardcore swayamsewaks. Similarly, the BJP's southern Rajasthan unit and its Madhya Pradesh districts close to the Gujarat border were virtually taken over by its fanatical Gujarat leaders. They fully controlled the action in 36 constituencies in Rajasthan.

The fielding of fiery Hindutva icons like the saffron-clad Uma Bharati and Narendra Modi as campaign leaders conveyed an unambiguous message. Modi is not just another BJP leader or Gujarat Chief Minister. In the public mind, he is the organiser of the Gujarat pogrom.

The Hindutva stamp on the BJP's strategic line of march has both forward and backward linkages, so to speak. The BJP's influence, especially in the crucial Adivasi belt of the three States, derives from the long-term implantation of RSS-sponsored proselytising organisations such as the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. They have for two decades or longer run various anti-Christian, Hindu "re-conversion" campaigns and viciously communal education projects to brainwash tribal people into a rigid (but largely alien) Hindu identity.

The BJP's gains in the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh tribal belt are comparable to its co-optation of Adivasis in Panchmahals district in the butchery of Gujarat's Muslims in March 2002. Of the total of 99 constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Tribes in the three States, the BJP won 77. This marks the single most important social-political change - the Big Story of these elections. It is attributable, above all, to Hindutva. Not to be ignored is the build-up to the election through the Ayodhya campaign and the Bhojshala agitation in Madhya Pradesh - another thoroughly despicable communal mobilisation.

The forward linkages became revoltingly evident at the three Chief Ministers' swearing-in. In Bhopal, no fewer than 40 sadhus, many bearing fearsome trishuls, occupied more than half the stage set for the oath-taking. Bharati's Ministers cowered before them as they chanted Jai Shri Ram. Looking on approvingly were L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Arun Shourie. In Jaipur, Narendra Modi, no less, demonstratively stood by Vasundhara Raje Scindia.

Uma Bharati's very first decision - taken after duly tonsuring her head at Tirupati and feeding cows in the streets of Bhopal - was to ban cow slaughter and vow to reinstall a Saraswati idol in Bhojshala. In Rajasthan, all BJP MLAs were treated to special two day-long discourses by the RSS sarasanghachalak at Kota. And the government made chanting of Vande Mataram obligatory for hostel students.

This is just for starters. It is a safe bet that the new governments will promote Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, communal syllabi and majoritarian practices. The BJP does not take power without purpose - and malign purpose at that.

Much has been written about the micro-management skills of the new generation of marketing-oriented cynical BJP apparatchiks. There is simply no doubt that they got the caste and tribe arithmetic right - far more effectively than the Congress(I), which was riven by factions under sullen leaders looking for petty gains. Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and company proved adept at choosing winnable candidates, fielding a galaxy of speakers, inventing imaginative slogans, encouraging Congress(I) "rebels" and other spoilers, and getting voters to polling booths manned by bureaucrats willing to "guide" them with novel electronic voting machines.

What is perhaps equally significant but difficult to prove is the BJP's Machiavellian exploitation of government employees' discontent in election-booth "management", for instance, in Rajasthan (Gehlot had refused their bonus demand). The BJP also resorted to other unethical practices - such as procuring and using data gathered by an opinion poll agency commissioned by a magazine on 37 "marginal", potentially winnable, constituencies. The party invested huge resources in these to boost vote-splitters by offering inducements. This speaks of excellent marketing skills, a clear focus and much enthusiasm, but even more eloquently, of murky strategies. The BJP is mired deeply in duplicity, deception and outright dishonesty. Worse, it has convinced itself of its own indispensability to India.

THE elections hold several lessons for secularists on how to, and how not to, fight the BJP. First and foremost, the BJP is not a normal constitutional party. It is an extremist party with a sectarian agenda. It seeks to alter the ground rules of the democratic order and impose majoritarianism. It reluctantly accepts the constraints of working within a democratic polity - not out of conviction, but because it has no other option. Yet, it will push that framework's limits outwards by violating norms of democratic decency, through intimidation, by insistently pursuing angular agendas.

An abnormal, immoderate and yet diabolically manipulative party like the BJP cannot be defeated in the normal, routine ways familiar to democracies. A broad-based coalition is necessary to defeat it by fighting it ideologically in a focussed manner. The Congress(I) abjectly failed to build such a coalition in the three States.

Second, the BJP is not just a political party. It is also a movement around religious-social-political issues. It cannot be combated by electoral methods alone. It has to be countered at the level of civil society, in schools, in institutions, in all forums of debate. It has to be fought in the streets, in labour unions, urban communities, in villages - through grassroots counter-mobilisation. Only this can resist the enormous negative energies Hindutva concentrates in its election campaigns. Such movements do not wither away. They have to be actively put down.

Third, it is vital to deny political legitimacy to dark forces like the BJP. The BJP has travelled light years from 1996 when it could not find a single ally during its 13 inglorious days in power. Today, any number of parties and factions are willing to break bread with it - former socialists, regional outfits, even Dalit-based organisations. For instance, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) is reported to have done a deal in Madhya Pradesh, where it jointly "decided" with the BJP which seats to contest. This enabled the S.P. to win an unprecedented seven seats with 3.7 per cent votes, a 75 per cent rise over its 1998 scores. Other groups like Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti might also be willing to do murky deals with the BJP. Paswan is reportedly being approached to this end with the offer of Bihar's chief ministership.

One way to prevent such gross manipulation is to reach broad agreement on a policy document that states just what secularism means and what are its political do's and don'ts in today's situation. The Left parties should take the initiative here.

A fourth lesson is that parties like the BJP can only be politically delegitimised when their core appeal is countered. The BJP's appeal comes from broadly three sources: Hindu majoritiarianism, macho hypernationalism and a severely elitist economic neo-liberalism. All three must be fought.

That is just not happening. The Congress(I) attacks Hindutva in its Ayodhya or Article 370 avatar. But Digvijay Singh and Ajit Jogi both pandered to it through cow-worship campaigns (Madhya Pradesh), or launching all their election yatras from Hindu temples (Chhattisgarh). Again, the Congress(I) simply does not take on the BJP's brand of chauvinist nationalism. It often yields ground to it - for example, on India-Pakistan relations or Kashmir.

Even more ambiguous is the centrist parties' record on economic policy. They have failed to demarcate themselves from the neo-liberal dogmas of globalisation, deregulation and privatisation. This instantly yields ground to the BJP. Neo-liberalism appeals to India's more aggressive, upwardly mobile classes; the majority abhors it. The anti-BJP forces must relate organically to the majority. If they cannot, they will not build effective social coalitions based on the masses. This calls for a comprehensive, holistic, approach, which goes beyond electoral mobilisation, but does not ignore its requirements, including the minutiae of micro-management.

One last word. This BJP's latest victory should not be allowed to produce the illusion that it won on "secular" agendas. That will only "normalise" and "mainstream" the BJP. It was bad enough that it got some legitimacy first in the 1970s through myth-making about its commitment to democratic freedoms and an exaggeration of its opposition to the Emergency. In 1989-91, the legitimation got strengthened because of the dependence on the BJP of the then only (temporarily) viable non-Congress(I) government (V.P. Singh's).

Such mistakes must not be repeated. We may be approaching the last battleground in the fight against a dark force of historic proportions. We cannot afford to lose this fight.

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