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The road from Gujarat

Print edition : Jan 17, 2003

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The political need to keep the NDA experiment going for the time being forces the BJP to play down the crucial role of its communal mobilisation strategy in the Gujarat victory. And a confused Congress(I), recovering from the debacle, is yet to draw up a coherent strategy to counter the BJP.

in New Delhi

FACED with a barrage of questions from the media on whether the party intended to repeat the Gujarat strategy - as evolved by Chief Minister Narendra Modi - with its emphasis on unabashed minority-bashing, elsewhere in the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been on the defensive, reluctant as it is to own up the strategy in public.

The political resolution adopted at its national executive meeting in New Delhi on December 23 and 24, said: "The election was considered a trial for the cultural nationalism of the BJP and our commitment to eliminate terrorism, a menace which threatens our national sovereignty. Our opponents considered terrorism as a virtual non-issue. The people of Gujarat endorsed our commitment to cultural nationalism and voted us back for a third time in a row."

For those who might wonder what exactly cultural nationalism meant in the context of Gujarat, and whether it was an election issue at all, the party had no answers. The idea of cultural nationalism is central to the evolution of the BJP's ideology. It is exclusivist, and it despises diversity within the concept of political nationalism. But it would be far-fetched to claim, as the BJP has done, that the Gujarat electorate has voted for its cultural nationalism. The BJP's ideological moorings were not an issue in the Gujarat elections. Terrorism certainly was, and if the BJP succeeded in exploiting people's concern over the upsurge in terrorism and projecting that the BJP alone could deal with it effectively, it cannot be considered as the people's endorsement of its ideology of cultural nationalism. As the post-poll survey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Gujarat reveals (Frontline, January 3), the number of respondents who would like the new government in Gandhinagar to combat terrorism are outnumbered by those who want it to restore communal harmony and instil confidence among the minorities.

The political resolution said: "Let our critics remember that the BJP stands for the protection of each and every Indian and his right to religious freedom. We are committed against terror; we condemn what happened in Godhra and thereafter. We shall not tolerate incidents which took place at Akshardham. We are confident that the Gujarat election will prove to be a turning point in India's history, and the ideology of cultural nationalism propagated by the BJP will find wide-scale acceptability all over the country."

Party president Venkaiah Naidu said the party would repeat its Gujarat "experience" in other States going to the polls in 2003. Gujarat "experience", and its "spirit", Venkaiah Naidu clarified, meant achieving victory through hard work, and united effort.

The party attributes its electoral victory in Gujarat to the unity of its cadres. It said that the party ticket was denied to only 19 aspirants; of them only three rebelled and contested against official candidates. The issue of dissidence, it said, was sorted out at the district level, and the district units generally recommended only one candidate per constituency.

But the real reason for the BJP's relative cohesion during the elections can be traced to the fact that, from the beginning, the contest was one-sided, with the BJP enjoying an edge over the Congress(I) thanks to Narendra Modi's and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) vicious campaign. With Modi proving to be a greater crowd-puller than even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee or Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, the dissidents had no option but to lie low.

A WEEK before the party's national executive meeting, Vajpayee had, while addressing the BJP Parliamentary Party, dwelt on the issues of governance which he said had helped the party register a spectacular victory in Gujarat. The attempt was to downplay Modi's electoral strategy. However, he said that had the Muslim leaders condemned the Godhra outrage promptly after the incident, violence might not have ensued. Vajpayee was factually incorrect when he blamed the Muslim leaders, but his allegation brought him closer to the hardliners within the Sangh. Advani claimed that the BJP would have still won in Gujarat, even if Godhra had not happened. He gave credit to the State government's achievements for the victory, probably in a bid to downplay the `Modi-VHP' factor in the victory.

But at the national executive meeting, Vajpayee sought to make amends for his earlier speech. He declared that religion cannot be exploited to garner votes in an election, and that Hindutva cannot become a political or electoral agenda. However, responding to VHP international general secretary Praveen Togadia's remark that India will be a Hindu rashtra in another two years, he said that India was already a Hindu rashtra (meaning a Hindu nation, as opposed to a Hindu state).

THE apparent vacillation on the part of Vajpayee, Advani and Venkaiah Naidu over the interpretation of the Gujarat verdict stems from their concern to keep the National Democratic Alliance experiment going, at least for now, despite the pressure to pursue a more strident ideological approach.

Strains have begun to surface in the NDA following the Gujarat verdict. In Orissa, on the foundation day celebrations of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Bhubaneswar, some BJD leaders called the BJP a communal party, and underlined the need to stall its growth in the State. The BJP is the BJD's ally in the State, and at the Centre. Dharmendra Pradhan, BJP national secretary and MLA, described the BJD's criticism of the BJP as opportunistic, and said it betrayed the envy and insecurity of the BJD following the BJP's landslide victory in Gujarat.

In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP's State unit has expressed its intention to contest not less than 100 of the 294 seats in the Assembly elections that are due in 2004. In 1999, the BJP contested 24 seats in alliance with the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP). However, TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu is unlikely to appease the BJP if his ambitious target of winning 250 is any indication.

Other allies such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have expressed uneasiness about giving continued support to the Vajpayee government, if the BJP intended to replicate the Gujarat experiment in other States. However, the BJP's promise that it would not abandon the National Agenda for Governance (NAG) in the pursuit of its own ideology has helped to quieten the DMK for the present.

MEANWHILE, Togadia has declared that in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, where Assembly elections are due in 2003, "the politics of Hindu vote and not that of Muslim vote-bank" will continue. And crucial to the VHP's strategy would be to replicate the Gujarat model, where it established an organisational network of one crore members from 10,000 villages. The VHP believes that a campaign for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya would be crucial for this. According to VHP senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore, the VHP's Dharam Sansad in New Delhi from February 22 to 25 would spell out an action-plan to achieve this objective.

Whatever the VHP's programme in the coming days, the BJP has no problems with it, provided that it does not threaten the stability of the NDA government. As the BJP benefited from the VHP's campaign in Gujarat, it feels it has nothing to lose by letting the VHP pursue its agenda.

For the BJP, one lesson from Gujarat was that a strong and vibrant State-level leadership would help end factionalism. Hence the decision to send Union Ministers Uma Bharati and Vasundara Raje Scindia to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to lead the party units there ahead of the Assembly elections. In Delhi, party general secretary Arun Jaitley is a possible successor to Madan Lal Khurana, who has taken over as the Chairman of the Delhi Metro. The realisation that Vajpayee's image alone will not fetch votes in future elections has made the BJP prepare for the post-Vajpayee phase ahead of the next general elections in 2004.

IN all the States going to Assembly elections this year, the BJP's principal opposition would be the Congress(I). While some have blamed the Congress(I)'s soft Hindutva line just on the eve of the polls in Gujarat for its debacle, others argue that a clear secular line would have damaged the party further in the election. The lesson for the party therefore is to plan a prolonged campaign based on secularism in the States going to the polls this year.

If the party's response to its defeat in the three Assembly byelections in Rajasthan is any indication, it is confused about how to effect mid-course correctives. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is under attack within the party for his "lacklustre" leadership. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi is apparently under pressure to replace him with another leader who can galvanise the party in a way that matches the BJP's hectic preparations for the Assembly elections. But changing Gehlot, who is known for his simplicity and integrity, could send wrong signals to the electorate. In any case, such leadership changes in the States going to the polls would give the impression that the party was in a state of panic - an impression that might benefit the BJP.

The Congress(I)'s policy on alliances with other like-minded parties is likely to come under focus again, even though the third force is not a significant factor in this year's Assembly elections in any State. The Congress(I) has been criticised, especially by the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), for not reaching an understanding with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the S.P. ahead of the Gujarat elections so as not to split the anti-BJP votes. But some observers do not agree that the results would have been any different had the Congress(I) forged an alliance with these parties. The combined votes of these parties and the Congress(I) might have exceeded that of the BJP in a few constituencies, but this in itself cannot be a ground for assuming that vote-transfer among these parties would have taken place had there been an alliance.

Underlying the Congress(I)'s dilemma is the basic issue of interpreting the Gujarat vote. There has been no conclusive answer to the question of why the Gujarat voters voted the BJP to power, for the third successive time.

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