The patterns and lessons

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

The BJP has recovered, through the subtly executed politics of hatred, its single strongest support base in the country, a base it has built assiduously. But the facts of the situation have set clear limits to any plans to replicate the model elsewhere. The findings of a post-poll survey by the CSDS.

ALL those who take the idea of India and the idea of democracy seriously are asking two related but distinct questions after the Bharatiya Janata Party's landslide victory in the Gujarat elections. The first is a question about the implications of the verdict for the future. Is this the beginning of a new phase in Indian politics? The beginning of a new vijay parva, as the Prime Minister claimed soon after the verdict was known? Or worse, is this the first step towards the realisation of the dream of a Hindu Rashtra, articulated in the latest instance by Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia?

The second question concerns the implication of this verdict for other parts of the country. Can the Gujarat model be exported to other States? Does the model allow replication, and under what conditions?

The questions do not admit of a full and final answer today. Some of the answers will depend on how the democratic politics of secularism and Indian nationalism is shaped in time to come. Some of these answers will have to be looked for and shaped outside Gujarat.

But a search for answers to these questions might help to see clearly what the BJP's victory is a victory of. And, how specific this victory is to the situation that obtained in Gujarat.

At least a part of the shock and disbelief that have set in in the wake of the verdict has to do with a somewhat misplaced sense of suspense about it that had prevailed. Many media reports and forecasts had created the expectation of an impending Congress victory or a photo finish. Finally the verdict was fairly close to the findings reported in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey sponsored by Frontline and NDTV that showed the elections to be a one-sided contest (Frontline, December 20). Completed just before the campaign formally kicked off, the CSDS survey had reported a "comfortable lead" of 15 percentage points for the BJP and mentioned the possibility of a "landslide in favour of the BJP" should the same trend continue till the day of polling. Although the survey was not intended to make a seat forecast, its vote share projections were translated by NDTV as 120 seats for the BJP and 50 seats for the Congress, in its programme "Battleground". That the final outcome was fairly close to this indicates that the die was cast much in advance of polling day. A post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS showed that the BJP had established a lead of seven percentage points among 40 per cent of the respondents who had made up their mind much before the campaign had begun. Those who made up their mind during the course of the campaign were equally split between the BJP and the Congress. But then, there were nearly one-third of the voters who made up their mind only during the final 24 hours before the polling. The BJP gained a lead of another three points among this group. To be sure, there was a last-minute fluctuation, but not of an order that could change the nature of the verdict. The BJP won, not owing to some last-minute change of mind by the voters but owing to the unassailable lead it had gained before the last and the final lap began.

Deceptive similarities

Various commentators have simultaneously underestimated and overestimated how normal this verdict of Gujarat is. On the surface, the verdict of the 2002 elections bears a striking and deceptive similarity to past election results in the State. To use a term from psephological jargon, this was a `routine' round of elections where an already established pattern of party loyalty of the voters was replicated rather than being a `critical' round of elections where long established patterns are decisively broken, ushering in a political realignment of social groups.

Looked at purely in terms of numbers, this is a routine victory for the BJP in a State where the party established itself a decade ago as the natural party of governance. Looking at the statistics, a future historian might wonder why there was so much fuss about the possible outcome of this round of elections.

The final outcome conforms to a surprisingly familiar pattern for any student of Gujarat politics. Eventually the BJP has managed to cross the two-thirds mark to win 126 seats, adding just nine seats to its tally in the previous Assembly elections held in 1998. This is the third consecutive victory for the BJP, and in terms of the number of seats the highest ever tally for the party that secured 121 seats in its first breakthrough in the 1995 elections. The Congress' final tally of 51 seats is two below what it achieved in the last elections and a dozen fewer than what it held in the latest Assembly at the time of its dissolution.

One can say that the magnitude of the BJP's majority is smaller when compared to the victories scored by the Congress in the 1980 and 1984 elections in the heyday of the KHAM alliance (comprising Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim components), and that the Congress fared much worse in the 1990 elections. But these consolations in statistical terms mean little to a party that has not won any State-wide round of elections held since 1985.

The final figures of popular vote confirm the picture of normalcy. The BJP secured 49.8 per cent of the votes cast in the elections, some 10 percentage points higher than the 39.3 per cent secured by the Congress. A 10 percentage points lead for the BJP has been a familiar story of the last decade of elections in Gujarat. During this period, Gujarat politics has seen major changes, resulting in the emergence of a neat two-party system. The BJP has suffered a major split and two major regional formations have merged in the Congress. Notwithstanding all these changes, the BJP maintained a lead of exactly 10 percentage points over the Congress in the Assembly elections held in 1995 and 1998 and the Lok Sabha elections of 1996. The lead dropped a little to seven percentage points in the last Lok Sabha elections and has now risen back to the standard figure of 10 points. There is nothing surprising about the vote-seats relationship here. As per the statistical Cube Law of the first-past-the-post-electoral system (wherein the two leading parties share the seats in proportion to the cube of their respective vote share), this 10 per cent lead translated into a two-thirds majority for the BJP.

The outcome also confirmed another pattern that has come to stay in the bipolar competition in the State that of the electoral irrelevance of all other political formations. There was much speculation this time about the role of the smaller formations, especially Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.). As it turned out, they accounted for very little. Neither of these parties nor the BJP's allies in Delhi, the Samata Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), managed to win any seat or damage the prospects of the Congress or the BJP.

In the last Assembly elections, Shankarsinh Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) represented the third option and secured 12 per cent of the votes. His party then merged in the Congress but failed to bring all its votes with it.

This time the BJP and the Congress both have experienced a positive swing of 4 to 5 percentage points in their favour compared to the previous elections. Put simply, both the parties seem to have split evenly the votes of the RJP. In their relationship to each other, however, they stand exactly as they were - 10 percentage points apart.

Finally, the elections of December 2002 were normal also in the levels of popular participation and interest. The final turnout of 61.7 per cent was a little higher than some of the very low-polling elections witnessed in the State in the last decade. But it fell well short of the 64 per cent turnout witnessed during the BJP's first victory in 1995. The level of popular enthusiasm and interest recorded by the CSDS post-poll survey actually shows a level lower than recorded in other States. Only 13 per cent of respondents said they took a `great deal' of interest in this round of elections. The proportion of those who took less interest in this round of elections than in the previous ones was actually higher than those who took more interest this time. The percentage of respondents who were canvassed and who participated in election campaigning does not compare favourably with other States that had elections in the last two years.

All in all, then, we have the first lesson of Gujarat. It is not that the BJP surged ahead out of nowhere in a highly intense and emotional election. It simply recovered its strongest support base in the country, a base that it has built assiduously and carefully over the last decade. The party simply may not have a base like this anywhere else. This sets clear limits to the possibility of exporting the Gujarat model.

Political geography of violence

This picture of normalcy and continuity is of course deeply deceptive. It hides the changes that took place between the last Lok Sabha elections in 1999 and this round of elections. It is not as though the BJP simply continued its dominance in Gujarat between 1999 and 2002. In 2000 the ruling party suffered a severe drubbing in the panchayat and municipality elections. The BJP won only 27 per cent of the zilla panchayat seats in 2000 compared to 82 per cent seats it had won in 1995. The party lost the Ahmedabad and Rajkot municipal elections after a very long time and was thus forced to postpone all other municipal elections indefinitely. This was followed by a series of byelection debacles: the party suffered an average swing of more than 10 percentage points against it in all the byelections held after the 1999 elections and right up to February 2002. Its long established dominance was clearly under threat.

And then came Godhra and its aftermath. Violence often serves to redraw boundaries of identity and affiliation. This is what seems to have happened with Gujarat. An analysis of the 65 constituencies that saw significant anti-Muslim violence in early-2002 brings out the dark shadow on this verdict of the widespread massacres. It is important to note that all but two of these constituencies fall in North Gujarat and Central Gujarat, the two regions where the Congress offered stiff competition to the BJP in the last parliamentary elections. The Muslim population is not concentrated in these regions, nor are these the only areas in the State with a history of communal violence. It is hard to conclude that the pattern of anti-Muslim violence had nothing to do with this political fact. The pattern underlying the verdict confirms the suspicion. The BJP has won 52 of these 65 seats, which represents a success ratio that is considerably higher than in the remaining constituencies. Its lead over the Congress is about 19 percentage points, compared to 5 percentage points in the remaining constituencies. It is not that the BJP was always stronger in these constituencies. There has been a 12-point swing in its favour since the last election, compared to the less than one-point swing that has occurred in the rest of the State.

The pattern of violence also enables us to understand the changing electoral map of the State. Beneath the appearance of continuity, a lot has changed.

Although the overall number of seats held by the BJP and the Congress has remained about the same, as many as 76 seats have changed hands between this and the previous round of Assembly elections. The BJP has lost 29 seats to the Congress, but has more than made up for it by snatching 35 seats.

The greatest churning took place in the Central Gujarat region. An old bastion of the Congress, this region was the weakest link in the BJP's victory chain in the last decade. Last time the BJP won only 15 of the 50 seats in this region, the only region where it trailed the Congress.

This time the pattern has been completely reversed. The BJP has swept the region for the first time, winning all but eight seats in this region - representing a net gain of 27 seats. In this region the BJP has an 18 percentage points lead over the Congress. The BJP has captured every single seat in erstwhile Congress fortresses such as Baroda, Panchmahals and Dohad districts. Indeed, Panchmahals district, the epicentre of the communal violence earlier in 2002, has recorded an astonishing 38 percentage points swing in favour of the BJP.

The massive gains in Central Gujarat have enabled the BJP to offset its losses in all the other regions of the State. The BJP was expected to suffer some losses in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions, which it had nearly swept last time and where there was little anti-Muslim violence. In these regions issues of water scarcity and governance coupled with the dissidence by Keshubhai Patel 's supporters were widely expected to give the BJP a run for its money. The election results do demonstrate something of an anti-incumbency effect here. The BJP's huge lead of 19 percentage points last time came down to merely 6 points this time. But even this reduced lead was enough for the ruling party to keep control of two-thirds of the seats here. While the poor relief and rehabilitation work for the earthquake victims helped the Congress to take an upper hand in Kutch district, the BJP continued its grip over districts such as Amreli, Rajkot and Bhavnagar. In all, the BJP got away lightly here by dropping only 11 seats.

The ruling party lost a little in the other two regions as well. Against its own expectation of gains in the violence-affected North Gujarat region, the BJP actually dropped a couple of seats. The saviour for the BJP here was Ahmedabad district, the largest in the State and the worst-affected in the communal carnage, where the party won 17 out of 19 seats. Elsewhere, in districts such as Patan and Banaskantha, Vaghela succeeded in transferring some of his RJP votes to the advantage of the Congress. The riots helped the BJP here too as it did much better here than in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Like Saurashtra, the region of South Gujarat also saw a more normal election outcome, with the BJP and the Congress splitting seats and votes almost equally. The Congress could have done better here and taken advantage of a significant swing against the BJP, but for some poor selection of candidates that forced Jinabhai Darji, the architect of the KHAM alliance, to support rebel candidates against the party.

The verdict also hints at subtle changes in the sociology of politics. The BJP has lost three urban seats, though on balance the urban electorate is still with the ruling party. The BJP enjoys a 22-point advantage here compared to an 8-point advantage in rural and semi-rural constituencies. Constituencies with a significant (more than one-fifth) proportion of Muslim voters do not show any significant difference from the rest. The turnout in these constituencies was at the same level as the rest. The BJP picked up a majority of these seats and enjoyed the same 10 point advantage here as it did in the State as a whole.

The first glance at the Adivasi-dominant areas (those with more than 30 per cent Adivasi population) also gives the same impression, since the BJP splits seats with the Congress in these areas and enjoys a lead that is smaller than its State average. Compared to the last elections, however, it represents a significant reversal of trends, as the BJP has turned a deficit of 7 points into a lead of 5 points this time. Besides, there is no all-Gujarat trend in the Adivasi areas. In the 18 seats of North Gujarat and South Gujarat, the Congress has won 13 with a clear lead of 10 percentage points. But it has drawn a blank in the 15 Adivasi-dominant seats of Central Gujarat. The BJP has won 13 of these with a 23 percentage points lead in terms of votes. The findings of the post-poll survey confirm these changes, as already reported in the pre-poll survey. There are clear signs now that the KHAM alliance stands disintegrated. The BJP has replaced it with a new social coalition of the upper castes, the Patidars and the Other Backward Classes, with some support from Dalits and Adivasis. Adivasis are the latest recruits for BJP's Hindutva. In other respects too the BJP retains its standard profile as reported in the pre-poll survey: as being stronger among men, urban voters, the educated and the well-to-do.

Thus the second interpretative lesson of the BJP's victory: the BJP managed to recover its eroding social base with carefully crafted and subtly executed politics of hatred. It did succeed in keeping the damage within limits and offset these against gains made in new regions and among new social groups. Anti-Muslim violence played a crucial role in this process of recovery, damage control and acquisition.

Gujarati political culture

The question, of course, is: what allowed this strategy to work? Is this state of mind a temporary one or is it here to stay? Can the formula be used elsewhere? The CSDS post-election survey gives glimpses of the voters' mind and shows the effects of the BJP's version of Hindu nationalism on Gujarat's political culture. There is very little that distinguishes the BJP and Congress voters in terms of ideas. The Congress operates within a political culture shaped by the BJP. Therefore, the BJP's electoral strategy was to keep the campaign focussed on generalities rather than get into the specifics of governance, and orient the candidate to State- and national-level issues rather than constituency-level issues. The Congress found itself bereft of cultural resources in this war of manoeuvres.

This does not mean that the BJP succeeded entirely in its project. Let us not forget that for every five persons who voted for the BJP there were four who voted for the Congress. When quizzed about the consideration that mattered most for them in arriving at their voting decision, the predominant response among voters of course concerned livelihood and developmental issues, as in any other election. But it is important to note that 22 per cent of all voters mentioned the Godhra carnage or the post-Godhra violence as the decisive consideration. A quarter of the BJP's voters and one-sixth of the Congress' voters mentioned either of these considerations. Other secular considerations weighed more heavily for the Congress voters than those of the BJP, but there were no sharp divergences here.

In thinking about the Godhra effect on this round of elections, a lot of attention has been paid to the riot-affected constituencies that saw a decisive swing towards the BJP. BJP ideologues have sought to counter this reading by saying that the BJP scored a clear victory in the non-riot affected constituencies as well and that therefore it is clear that the party would have won the elections even if there was no Godhra. The question that needs to be asked is: did the Godhra effect work outside the riot-hit areas? Did the riots play a role in swinging voters back to the BJP even in areas that did not see any riots? The answer, according to the CSDS post-poll survey, is a clear `yes'. The proportion of Hindu respondents who say that Godhra mattered a `great deal' in their voting decision is about the same in the riot-affected regions as in the rest of the State. If anything, respondents in the riot-affected areas were more circumspect in discussing this and keener than the others to deny any connection with Godhra. The Godhra effect was felt the least strongly in South Gujarat, which is closer to Godhra than is Saurashtra, where the effect was as strong as in the riot-hit regions such as North Gujarat and Central Gujarat. The Sangh Parivar has succeeded in turning Godhra from a local event to a generalised icon; the proximity of Godhra to a voter has had nothing to do with the geographical distance.

The success of the BJP's strategy in making Godhra the centrepiece of its election campaign has resulted in a deep ambivalence in the Gujarati Hindu on this question. When asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements concerning Godhra and its aftermath, a majority of Hindu respondents endorsed the post-Godhra riots while trying to distance themselves from their consequences. A clear majority of 55 per cent of Hindu respondents (73 per cent of those who had any opinion on the matter) agreed with the suggestion that the post-Godhra riots were "necessary to teach a lesson to anti-national elements" (read Muslims). While this category includes a larger proportion of BJP voters, it is worth noting that 47 per cent of the Congress voters (69 per cent of Congress voters who have any opinion on this question) also agreed with this communal statement. At the same time, it is also true that an ordinary Hindu does not want to look back now. Two-thirds of them agree that both Hindus and Muslims should now forget Godhra and its aftermath. Oddly for a people who are prepared to endorse the massacre of Muslims, nearly everyone agrees that those found guilty of violence in the riots must be punished.

On a simple reading these are contradictory answers. But these contradictions bring out the state of the mind of an average Gujarati Hindu. A Congress supporter could use these as the justification of the soft-Hindutva line that was deliberately adopted by the Gujarat Congress during the election campaign. It is true that the Sangh Parivar has shifted the entire political spectrum towards the Hindu Right and that a strident secular line in that context could have alienated many more voters from the Congress. But the Congress cannot present itself as a victim of ideological hijacking; in the long run the Gujarat Congress has very much been a part of the process that has brought the State to this pass. Its short-term compulsions are nothing but a consequence of its long-term inaction.

Thankfully, there is little enthusiasm for any further intensification of the communal agenda. When asked to choose the priorities of the new government, voters opted for economic development as the top priority. There are of course the 22 per cent voters, more of them among BJP voters, who would like the new government to go after the terrorists. But they are outnumbered by those who would like the government to restore communal harmony and instil confidence among the minorities. Another 11 per cent would like the government to focus on improving the image of Gujarat both within and outside the country. The non-aggressive posture of Narendra Modi after his victory is perhaps the reaction of an astute politician who knows the ground he stands on. These are sobering thoughts at the end of perhaps the most vicious and communal election campaign in post-Independence India.

THE third and final lesson from the Gujarat verdict needs to be drawn carefully. It is all too easy to draw a comforting lesson that the BJP's campaign of hate could succeed only in a State where the political culture has already shifted to the Right. This is clearly not the case elsewhere. But the point is that there is nothing essentially Gujarati about what has happened in Gujarat. The change in political culture and values is a political artefact, produced by a sustained campaign of disinformation, prejudices and hatred, backed up by the meticulous organisational network of the Sangh Parivar. If it can happen in Gujarat, it can happen elsewhere. An ordinary Indian may well be anti-sectarian and tolerant; but a secular polity cannot take this for granted. Democracy may have its in-built mechanisms of self-correction, but we cannot rely on these mechanisms to work themselves out.

The battle for secularism may well be a battle for political power and institutional norms in the short run. But in the long run the battle for a secular India is a battle of ideas that has to be fought every day, everywhere. The verdict of Gujarat is a grim reminder of what lies in store for the country if its citizens do not engage in this battle.

Yogendra Yadav is a Fellow at the CSDS, Delhi and Director of Lokniti, a research programme of the CSDS.

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