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Dealing with a genie

Print edition : Jan 03, 2003

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Narendra Modi's electorally successful strategy of communal mobilisation and the VHP's active role in its implementation are likely to set off a process of introspection within the BJP about the significance of the Gujarat victory.

IT would seem a paradox that close on the heels of a remarkable electoral victory, a political party should seek to distance itself from the factors that are widely perceived to have contributed to that success. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even while not being apologetic about its Hindutva agenda, is reticent about the contribution of communal polarisation in Gujarat to its magnificent victory in the December 12 Assembly elections.

The electoral strategy evolved by Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the February 2002 Sabarmati Express tragedy at Godhra railway station was founded on a campaign of hate and divisiveness and was devised with a motive to sustain the hiatus between two religious communities, in order to reap the support of the majority community at the hustings on the basis of fear and a misconceived promise of security. The strategy, which paid rich electoral dividends, may have set off a process of introspection in the BJP about the meaning and significance of the verdict at the national level.

BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu described the outcome as "a victory of nationalistic forces and a jolt to pseudo-secularists". Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said the results were an "expression of people's anger against a sustained campaign of slander against the people, the leadership and the administration of Gujarat". Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, while lauding the party's first victory under Venkaiah Naidu's leadership, said that he was "pleasantly surprised" by the landslide victory.

Vajpayee's surprise stems from the fact that he did not expect the Modi-led campaign to do so well. Vajpayee's revelation during the debate in Parliament on Gujarat that he wanted to sack Modi during the BJP's national executive meeting in Goa in May had led some observers to assume that Vajpayee wanted Modi to quit, owning responsibility for the post-Godhra pogrom, which had tarnished the Central government's image. However, Vajpayee never disclosed why he changed his mind. It is possible that he was convinced by the pro-Modi group in the BJP that the best way to prevent further communal violence in the State was to let Modi continue. However, now Vajpayee seems to have realised the growing importance of the Modi phenomenon within the party.

After initially approving the Election Commission's (E.C.) decision to ban the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) Jan Jagruti Yatra in November in the State, Vajpayee hastened to show his agreement with the party leadership in response to persistent queries from the media to clarify his position. The BJP had described the E.C.'s decision as inappropriate, but was embarrassed by the Prime Minister's support to the decision. The outcome of the election must have convinced Vajpayee about an ongoing shift in the balance of power within the party in favour of hardliners, and that any pretence of moderation was unlikely to help his survival in office or the party's prospects in future elections.

The Gujarat outcome is bound to lead to a debate on the merits of pursuing the strategy in other States. Venkaiah Naidu, Advani and second-rung leaders such as Union Ministers Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj, and party general secretary Arun Jaitley disagreed with the proposition that it was the communal polarisation that occurred in the wake of the Godhra incident and its aftermath that paved the way for the party's victory. According to Venkaiah Naidu, an initial analysis of the results on December 15, the Central leaders concluded that it was a mandate for the BJP's "performance" in Gujarat and the outcome of the negative campaign of its political opponents. Vajpayee, who said nothing about the merits of the vicious pre-poll campaign indulged in by Modi and the VHP, claimed that the BJP's victory march had just begun.

Jaitley and Mahajan disagreed that there was any correlation between the riots and the BJP's performance in certain pockets of the State such as Central Gujarat, where there was intense rioting. Behind this reluctance to admit the riot-specific nature of the Gujarat victory is the lack of clarity within the party about the relevance of a similar strategy in the rest of the country.

The BJP's reluctance to admit that riots helped consolidate Hindu votes in the State is not just because of the fear that it would be an admission of the violation of election laws. Indeed, according to observers, if election laws that make the seeking of votes on the basis of religion an electoral offence had been applied strictly during the run-up to the December 12 polls, the results would have been different. The party's reluctance stems partly from the fear of Modi emerging as a larger-than-life figure even outside Gujarat.

The BJP's central leadership has been rather helpless in the face of Modi's meteoric rise within the State after Godhra and especially after he began the Gaurav Yatra as part of his poll campaign. The rapid rise in his popularity within Gujarat when compared to that of Vajpayee and Advani prevented the party from prevailing over him in the choice of candidates. The party's inability to ensure the ticket to Haren Pandya, former Minister and a loyalist of Modi's rival, former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel in the face of stiff resistance from Modi, who had removed Pandya from his cabinet, is a case in point.

Reports of poor crowds at the public meetings addressed by Vajpayee and Advani, in contrast to the enthusiastic audience that thronged Modi's campaign meetings heightened the discomfiture of the party's central leadership. Modi even told the media off the record that he had no use for the campaign speeches of Vajpayee or Advani, or any other central leaders of the party because of the rapport he had built with the electorate.

It was probably to show that he did not share the virtues of the BJP's Godhra-centric campaign that Advani pointed out on December 15 that the party took a conscious decision not to raise Godhra or its aftermath in the election campaign despite provocation. True, the party's manifesto did not mention it and Advani and Vajpayee avoided any direct reference to it in their speeches. However, Modi was ingenious enough to sell the Godhra message to the electorate without expressly invoking it. "Crackers would be burst in Pakistan if the Congress(I) won," was his message to the electorate. His was a blatant effort to consolidate Hindu votes by identifying the entire minority community with a country perceived as an enemy, and by branding the Congress(I) as a traitor in the war against terrorism.

The emergence of Modi as a symbol of the militant wing of the Sangh Parivar, the VHP, has clearly put the party and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on notice.

The VHP's contribution to Modi's rise and the BJP's electoral victory is phenomenal, in terms of both energising the cadre and in terms of mobilising Hindu voters on the eve of the elections. Therefore, the VHP is not only likely to influence the Modi government's decisions but also put pressure on the Vajpayee dispensation at the Centre to bring about certain mid-course corrections to suit its interests, especially on issues such as Ayodhya.

Of late, the VHP has expressed its displeasure with the style of leadership of both Vajpayee and Advani. It criticised Vajpayee's backing to the E.C.'s decision to ban its yatra and forced him to retract his perceived differences with the BJP on the issue. It opposed Advani's statement in Parliament that India can never be a theocratic state. Advani's remark invited rebuke from the BJP's ally, the Shiv Sena, whose leader Bal Thackeray condemned him. Soon, clarifications were issued by the Advani group in the party to convince the VHP and the Shiv Sena that he remained committed to the concept of a Hindu Rashtra.

The VHP's aggressiveness has only sharpened after the Gujarat outcome. VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia has declared that Hindutva will be the central plank for future elections. Describing the results as a turning point, he claimed that only those who talk of Hindu interests could rule the country. Asserting that India would become a Hindu Rashtra within the next two years, he felt that the "Hindutva movement", which had halted in its tracks in 1992 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, had been revived and would be taken to its logical conclusion.

The BJP may find the VHP's lack of restraint in unveiling its divisive strategy a blessing in disguise as it helped consolidate Hindu votes in Gujarat. However, containing Modi and taming the VHP will be the twin challenges before the Vajpayee regime and the BJP leadership at the Centre, if the coalition experiment is to succeed. The BJP's allies in the NDA and outside may view the Gujarat outcome and the rise of the VHP with abundant caution, as the National Agenda for Governance (NAG) binding the alliance partners may come under stress. However, they have not shown any immediate signs of uneasiness over the BJP's mammoth victory.

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had stated in the wake of the Gujarat riot that it would be good if Modi quit office. However, in line with her recent overtures to the BJP on the issue of bringing legislation in the State to ban conversions, she congratulated Modi on "overcoming difficulties and obstacles created by the media and a hostile Election Commission of India". The AIADMK, like the BJP, was critical of the E.C.'s decision to defer the Assembly elections in Gujarat beyond October because of the law and order situation in the State.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which joined hands with the BJP to form a government in Uttar Pradesh, has also hailed the party's victory in Gujarat. U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati not only campaigned for the BJP in Gujarat but turned a blind eye to Modi's hate campaign against the minorities.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), an NDA ally, made vocal demands for Modi's resignation following the post-Godhra riots. However, after the BJP refused to concede the demand, the party did not pursue the oust-Modi campaign. The TDP's predicament was shared by the other allies including the Trinamul Congress, whose status within the NDA is unclear following the exclusion of its leader Mamata Banerjee from the Union Cabinet. Samata Party leader and Union Minister Nitish Kumar considered the Gujarat results a backlash against the "propaganda" that was being carried out by the BJP's opponents to tarnish the people of Gujarat. Secularism was not an issue in the elections, he felt. In this context, it appears that the BJP can take its allies for granted, at least until the VHP pursues contentious issues that would force the BJP to make hard choices.

Many observers concede that communal polarisation can succeed only in Gujarat-specific bipolar situations, and where there is already a suitable atmosphere for such an experiment to succeed. There is a feeling among them that the Modi phenomenon like the Ayodhya card after 1992 cannot deliver beyond one election, and would soon outlive its electoral utility. The BJP used the Ayodhya issue to mobilise Hindu voters on an emotive platform until the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992; after which, by the BJP's own admission, it began to pay diminishing returns.

The party lost the 1993 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, and had to harp on issues other than Ayodhya.

The Gujarat experiment succeeded primarily because the BJP was in power at the time of elections. The party does not have this advantage in several States that go to the polls in 2003. The Congress(I) rules Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi, where Assembly elections are scheduled to take place towards the latter part of 2003. In these States, while the BJP would certainly seek to exploit the people's grievances, it may also attempt to raise divisive issues such as a ban on religious conversions, a review of the role of madrassas, and terrorism, in order to build a vote-bank on communal lines.

The results from Gujarat and the byelections (the BJP won two Lok Sabha seats, Mehsana in Gujarat and Godda in Jharkhand and bagged all the three Assembly seats in Rajasthan) are seen as morale-boosters by the party leadership, coming as they do in the wake of the BJP's humiliation in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections held recently.

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