To reap a bitter harvest

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Narendra Modi and Co. are all set to try and take advantage of the Hindutva wave to gain power again in Assembly elections.

ON July 12, Ahmedabad witnessed a saffron show of muscle - both literally and metaphorically. As the Jagannath rath yatra passed through the predominantly Muslim Walled City area, young men and boys wearing saffron bandanas flexed their muscles at the crowds. Others ran through the streets with wild abandon, waving swords, trishuls and sticks. By insisting that the rath yatra be held despite fears of further violence, Chief Minister Narendra Modi had proved his point: that he can reap political gains with an aggressive Hindutva line. That muscle-flexing works.

The loud calls for his resignation having been reduced to a whimper, Modi has got down to the business of preparing for Assembly elections. Although they are not due until early 2003, he wants to hold them as soon as possible, maybe in October. Modi is eager to harvest the gains of the communal carnage, in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. The scale of the carnage has shaken all Gujaratis and the 1.5 lakh people rendered homeless are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Around 30,000 of them are stranded in relief camps all over the State.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi with former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and his ministerial colleagues, at the procession.-PARAS SHAH

But they are of no concern to Mr. Modi. His government has not even paid them adequate compensation and is even shunning its responsibility of providing supplies to the relief camps. The existence of 90 per cent of the camps it has refused to acknowledge; it has de-listed them. The Chief Minister's only priority now seems to be to take advantage of the Hindutva wave generated by the communal killings - before it dies out.

Even this saffron mood is rooted in fear. Using propaganda deftly, the Sangh Parivar has managed to play on the insecurities generated by the violence and spread the fear of retaliation by 'Muslim terrorists' to gain support. Its anti-Muslim vitriol continues to flow. At a public meeting in June, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal warned: "If Muslims continue to take the country towards partition, they will have to stay in refugee camps like in Gujarat.... The communal violence in Gujarat symbolises the first positive response of Hindus to Muslim fundamentalism in a thousand years." VHP and Bajrang Dal activists who indulged in violence have been further emboldened since they got away scot-free, shielded by the Bharatiya Janata party government.

Modi's stance is in keeping with the recent revamp of the BJP's central leadership. The hardline camp of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was seen to have gained the upper hand. Soon after his appointment as party spokesperson Arun Jaitley issued statements praising Modi's effective handling of the situation in the State. In April, at the party's National Executive meeting in Goa, there were hints of its toughening stand when Modi was let off the hook and the demand for his resignation was squelched. It was in Goa, just days after he had visited a relief camp in Gujarat, that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a speech saying that Muslims were not interested in living in peace, and criticising them for refusing to integrate with society. The BJP is now all set to test its hardline stance in the elections in Gujarat - its 'Hindutva laboratory' and the only State where it has a clear majority, with 117 of the 182 Assembly seats.

Since the government has failed to deliver on its election promise of 'na bhay, bhook, bhrashtachar' (no fear, hunger or corruption), it has now adopted the communal strategy to divert attention from the real issues. This summer, more than 2,000 villages in the State had acute water shortages. During the last two summers, starvation deaths and water riots were reported in the drought areas of Saurashtra. Where there is water - in the industrialised 'golden corridor' stretching along the coast - it is highly polluted with toxic industrial chemicals and poses a threat to the lives of local workers, farmers and fishermen.

With industry becoming more capital-intensive and the growth of the unorganised sector, jobs have become fewer and more exploitative. "Despite being the most industrialised State in the country, Gujarat has widespread underemployment and informal employment. Ahmedabad has one of the highest poverty rates among the major Indian cities," says Dr. Darshini Mahadevia of the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad.

Flexing their muscles as the yatra makes its way through the streets.-DIONNE BUNSHA

With the aid of fascist tactics, the BJP is using poverty and unemployment in the State to pit one community against the other. In Ahmedabad, it mobilised support among Dalit workers after the closure of textile mills in the 1980s up to the mid-1990s resulted in the loss of 67,000 jobs. In the drought-prone Panchmahals district, it allegedly mobilised and paid unemployed and landless tribal people to loot and burn the homes of Muslims. Moreover, lakhs of small factories, businesses and self-employed persons suffered huge losses during the violence.

The government's bungling of the earthquake rehabilitation work has also caused discontent. People had no shelter during the monsoon six months after the earthquake hit Bhuj on January 26 last year. Several irregularities in the purchase of tin sheets and other housing material were reported and the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report last year was a major embarrassment to the government. It highlighted irregularities in the award of government contracts and purchase of items ranging from aircraft to fodder. With the State government facing a severe cash crunch, necessitating overdrawal from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), development work has ground to a halt. Contractors recently held protests demanding payments for pending bills amounting to around Rs.850 crores.

As far as security goes, the constant fear of attacks among Muslims is a clear indication of the fact that the BJP has failed to deliver. Many Muslims have fled the State. Other communities, including Hindus, have also been shaken by the gory violence in the past four months which was planned by the Sangh Parivar. The BJP hurriedly brought in one-time 'super cop' K.P.S. Gill as security adviser to the State government. But far from restoring confidence and security in Gujarat, he has toed the government's line, endorsing its aggressive stand on early elections as well as the holding of the rath yatra. As soon as the yatra was over, he said his work in Gujarat was done and he would return to Delhi. This despite the fact that thousands of families still languish in relief camps. Criminals responsible for the carnage remain unpunished as in many instances the police have refused to file first information reports (FIRs) against them. Is his vision of law and order limited to security arrangements during festivals, asked an observer.

The government is now aggressively using Hindutva to divert attention from its failures. How effective Narendra Modi's strategy is, the election results will tell. What will work in his favour is the feeble opposition from the Congress(I). The Sangh Parivar was able to get away with the carnage because the Congress(I) in Gujarat offered no challenge to it. Realising this, the party's central leadership summoned Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president Amarsinh Chaudhry and Congress Legislature Party leader Naresh Rawal to New Delhi on July 13 and asked them to submit their resignations. It is possible that Shankersinh Vaghela, a BJP rebel, will take over as State Congress president.

The Congress has used to its advantage the fact that it has gained in all elections in the country held after the 1998 round of Assembly elections. In 2001, it won two Assembly byelections: in Sabarmati, which comes within Gandhinagar, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's Lok Sabha constituency. It was after this Congress victory that the BJP brought in Narendra Modi as Chief Minister. The first signs that the BJP's popularity was on the wane came in the September 2000 district panchayat elections. The party lost 23 of the 25 district panchayats and a majority of the taluk panchayats. Earlier, it had controlled 24 district panchayats. In the municipal elections in 2000, the party lost the Ahmedabad and Rajkot municipal corporations, which it had ruled for 13 and 24 years.

The Congress' incompetent counter to the BJP has, in fact, dampened the overall effect of these victories. Recently, it bungled in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, where it holds power. The corporation demolished a 100-year-old Madni mosque in the Vasna locality on July 4, after which 19 corporators threatened to resign. The Mayor, Himmatsinh Patel, claimed that bureaucrats had carried out the demolitions under instructions from the State government. The BJP government denies this allegation. The incident clearly demonstrates how the Congress continues to self-destruct at a time when logically it ought to be mobilising support.

While both the Congress and the BJP claim that they are ready for elections whenever they are held, it is the BJP that seems more organised. "After Modi was given the go-ahead for elections at our national executive in Goa, we have organised five taluk-level meetings to gear up the local cadre for the elections," says Rajendrasinh Rana, president of the Gujarat BJP. While the Congress is still effecting changes in the senior leadership, the BJP was all set to start its campaign by organising a "Gujarat Gaurav Yatra" with the Chief Minister and senior leaders touring the State. The yatra was postponed after the National Human Rights Commission cautioned that it could aggravate the law and order situation.

Tall claims and muscle-flexing are all that the BJP is left with in the absence of effective governance in the State. The entry of Modi, a greenhorn to governance, as Chief Minister signalled the BJP's move towards a hardline Hindutva strategy. And in the absence of any concrete achievements by its government, that is probably all that the party is left with.

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