A challenging phase

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

Going by the record of the Hindu Right in power, the future promises to be bleak for Gujarat.

Khadha pachi no afsos thashe (they will savour victory, but its taste will soon turn bitter). Beginning January 8 until April 7, the period is extremely challenging for Gujarat, where peace will elude the State. Terrorism, communal strife and general tension will prevail...

Astrologer Harish Goswami, in The Sunday Times of India, Ahmedabad, December 15, 2002.

CHIEF MINISTER Narendra Modi is known to believe in omens and prophecies.

Speaking to journalists at a press conference held immediately after his historic election victory in Gujarat, Modi dwelt at length on its numerological intricacies. "Today is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's death anniversary," he began. "We had started our campaign on his birth anniversary, October 31, which is represented by the numbers 1,2 and 8. I had said at one of the rallies that these very numbers made up the strength of the Gujarat Assembly, 182, and that perhaps there is a message contained within this." Modi's numbers are more than a little mystifying, but no astrological qualifications are needed to gaze into the future of the government that he will now head. Once the saffron glow wears off, it will become clear that Gujarat is headed for more trouble. And those who will have to deal with the approaching crisis are precisely the same people who manufactured it.

It takes little to see that this election verdict has laid the foundations for continued communal conflagration in Gujarat. Shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party's victory was announced, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani told journalists in New Delhi that his party's campaign had nothing to do with Hindu communal mobilisation. "No one raised Godhra at any of our rallies," he insisted. "I myself addressed dozens of rallies in Gujarat, and did not speak of the issue even once. It is remarkable," he said.

Like many of the Hindu Right's other assertions during this campaign, Advani's claim was completely untrue. On December 9, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Shivanand Maharaj, campaigning for the BJP's Godhra candidate Haresh Bhatt, compared Muslims killed during the riots to "garbage". "What if some of them are killed," he asked. Bhatt himself described the election as "a fight between Hindus and Muslims". He proclaimed: "We will take revenge for February 27, on December 12." Similar hate propaganda underpinned the BJP's campaign elsewhere in the State. At rally after rally, VHP volunteers shouted slogans proclaiming that "only those who work for the Hindu faith will be allowed to rule in this country". At Kalol, the BJP used the services of VHP candidate Prahlad Shastri, a local Sadhu from Pavagadh. He asked voters to "correct the impression that Godhra is Muslim-dominated". In an effort to avoid censure by the Election Commission, BJP candidates rarely led such polemic themselves; instead they delegated the task to the party's sister organisations.

Candidates of the BJP used more oblique means to gather communal solidarity. Kalubhai Maliwad, the BJP candidate from Lunawada, spent some seven months in jail on charges of being involved in the mass murder of Muslims. Maliwad's campaign posters proclaimed his innocence and blamed the Congress(I) for his arrest. The effort, in this case, was to gather the support of the families of persons held on riot-related charges. Posters and videotapes of the Godhra massacre were used freely.

Unsurprisingly, Muslims in Gujarat have reacted to the election results with great concern. Nine months after she was forced out of her home in Ahmedabad's Naroda-Patiya area during the post-Godhra riots, Shamima Bano continues to live in a corner of the Shah Alam shrine, which had been turned into an impromptu refugee camp. "I have seen my family and neighbours being burnt alive over there," she says, "and although my home has been rebuilt, I just can't bring myself to spend the nights there." This year, Bano voted for the first time in an election. "I wanted Modi to be punished for what he has done here," Bano said. "I wanted to punish him for the death inflicted on us," she said. She hoped to celebrate a Congress(I) victory, but, the firecrackers were set off by the BJP cadre in neighbouring Maninagar, Modi's constituency. "There are some people who want to pick up guns and fight for our rights," she ended flatly, "all I can do is to pray for justice." Bano makes no effort to conceal what she believes justice is: "Those who have killed must die."

Hatred in Gujarat is not news, be it Hindu or Muslim. But little effort has been made to understand the larger climate, which has given birth to it.

The BJP's office in Ahmedabad sits on the banks of the river that divides the city. To its east lies the poor part of India's seventh largest city, home to most of the city's Muslims, Dalits and the working class; and home, too, to most of the communal violence that the city has witnessed. The eastern part of the city was, in the mid-19th century, a great industrial centre. Today, the textile mills are dead. Many of those who worked there have taken up poorly paid jobs in the small industrial units on the periphery of eastern Ahmedabad, or work as casual labourers. Both Hindus and Muslims here have no share in the big city or the bright-lights culture that thrives on the west bank of the Sabarmati. Data published in 2001 by A. Dubey and Darshini Mahadevia showed that the absolute share of the poor in the population of Kolkata fell from 26.35 per cent in 1987-88, to 10.35 per cent in 1993-94, of Pune from 38.61 per cent to 23.46 per cent, and of Bangalore from 34.03 per cent to 17.21 per cent. By contrast, almost a third of Ahmedabad's residents remained poor across this period.

Little seems to have changed since then. Industrial decline has led to a marked decline in the quality of life of the city's working class. A 1999 survey by Unni Jeemol found that over three-quarters of Ahmedabad's workers had informal sector jobs, which are generally associated with low wages and poor social security. This was in stark contrast with the situation when Ahmedabad was still an industrial city. A 1997 survey of retrenched mill workers found that 24 per cent were yet to find new jobs. Another 45 per cent were employed as casual labourers, earning about Rs.870 a month, while 26 per cent were self-employed, earning an average of Rs.837 a month. Regular factory jobs would have brought salaries of between Rs.2,000 and Rs.2,500 a month. Recent studies have pointed to the fact that growing numbers of women have joined the workforce since 1987, mainly as self-employed workers. This phenomenon, possibly a response to joblessness and low wages among men, has caused enormous social dislocation and stress.

Such a climate of decline and desperation makes it easy for communal-fascist forces to flourish. In the absence of any radical political discourse in urban Gujarat, communal politicians have been able to persuade the Hindu poor that their interests lie in direct conflict with those of Muslims.

Remittances from West Asia-based relatives of urban Muslims; the involvement of some Muslims in Gujarat's underbelly of petty crime and bootlegging; competition for space, land and jobs all these have become flashpoints in a fight for survival. Fundamentalist forces thrive amongst Muslims as well. Organisations such as the Tabligh-i-Jamaat or the now-banned Students Islamic Movement of India, which conflate the problems of poor Muslims with Islamic dispossession, have had considerable success. Outside urban centres too the BJP has had considerable success, and for similar reasons. The Gandhian bodies who for decades dominated social work among the Adivasis of central Gujarat have long been displaced by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-affiliated organisations such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad.

Across the river, Gujarat's increasingly globalised middle class and elites have their own share of problems. Oddly enough, the State's prosperity has not led to social cohesion or security. Many Gujaratis with links abroad have seen in the Hindu Right a defence against the supposedly predatory cultural influences of the West. Others, who have been discriminated against in Europe or the United States, fund Hindu fascism in the hope of creating a society where they are truly first-class citizens. Even elites who live in Gujarat have anxieties which have been accentuated by a rapidly transforming world, and concerns that lend themselves easily to fascism. The peculiar form of capitalism that the State has witnessed in recent decades has been founded not so much on any kind of economic order as on a freewheeling culture of bribery and influence-peddling. Manipulating the system has been central to economic progress. Fortunes can be made quickly, but can be lost even faster. An uncertain world had led to a turning to God and to those who claim to speak with divine sanction.

"The very Arcanum of pretending religion in all wars," wrote the lawyer John Selden in 1621, "is that something may be found out in which all men may have an interest. In this, the groom has as much interest as the lord. Were it for land, one has one thousand acres and the other but one; he would not venture so far as he that has a thousand. Had all men land alike... then all men would say they fought for land." Selden's core point was simple. Religion has been used by the powerful to create solidarities between communities which otherwise have no common interests. This is what the BJP has achieved in Gujarat; it brought together urban elites, Adivasis, Dalits, intermediate castes, and a welter of other groups in an unlikely alliance that has propelled the party to a historic victory. The killings at Godhra merely acted as a catalyst that hardened an already strong Hindu-chauvinist foundation, a proposition affirmed by the fact that the BJP's vote-share has grown only marginally since the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, which were not fought on expressly communal themes. During those elections, Gujarat became the only major State where more than half of the voters supported the party of the Hindu Right.

WHY did the Congress(I) fail in stemming the saffron tide? Some critics believe that the party failed to take an adequately aggressive secular posture. They argue that its adoption of what one commentator described as "vanilla secularism" led voters to choose the real, kesar flavour.

There is some merit to this argument. In some areas, Congress(I) candidates adopted flagrantly communal positions on Godhra, and the party did not take a firm stance on the riot victims' demands for justice. Little effort was made to purge the party of the many Ahmedabad Congress(I) elements who had participated in the post-Godhra pogrom. None the less, the fact remains that the Congress(I) lost not because uninspired Muslims chose not to vote for it. It is also unclear whether the party, given that its campaign was restricted to just two weeks, could have challenged Hindutva head on. Clearly, the Congress(I) needs to think hard about its understanding of secularism, although this in itself cannot explain its embarrassing poll debacle. Some clues may lie in Congress(I) leader Shankarsinh Vaghela's post-election lament that "the people of Gujarat chose Hindutva over jobs, development and progress".

As the election results show, the BJP's failure to bring about real economic development will not undermine its appeal. Since the party took power in 1995, Gujarat's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown only by 2.3 per cent annually, as against a growth of over 10 per cent in the early 1990s. Its fiscal deficit, as a percentage of its GDP, has grown from a relatively manageable 2.03 per cent in 1995-96, to over 7 per cent today. Under BJP rule, agriculture has grown barely by 1 per cent each year, and according to some estimates, production shrank approximately by 10 per cent in 2000-02. Large tracts of Saurashtra have been rendered barren owing to saline ingress induced by groundwater depletion. The truth is that the Congress(I) has no alternative vision of development. Neither Vaghela nor anyone else in the Congress(I) has provided a credible notion of how the party plans to promote job-creating industries, as opposed to high-technology mega-projects, or address agricultural decline. As such, no major formation is placing the objective concerns of people in the foreground of their political agenda.

In that is contained the possibility of change, as well as the possibility of worse times to come. Speaking on the evening of December 15, Vaghela used all the language that he had shied away from using during his election campaign. The Hindutva triumph, he said, was built "on the dead body of Manavikta (universal human values)". Gujarat's people may have been swept away in the saffron surge, he continued, but they would hold the government to account on issues of development, employment and food security. The words sounded comforting, but it is far from clear how far the Congress(I) will be able to go towards translating them into reality. For all its ideological or social differences with the BJP, the Congress(I)'s vision for Gujarat is largely similar to that of the Hindu Right. Both envision Gujarat as an endless swathe of petrochemical factories, large dams, and high-speed freeways. If the Congress(I) is to recover lost ground, it needs to work out what the party actually stands for something that no one in Gujarat seems very certain of today.

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