Coming to terms with Gujarat

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

THE Bharatiya Janata Party's sweep of Gujarat in the December 2002 Assembly elections certainly represents a turnaround in the fortunes of the Hindu Right. Over a period of two years, the BJP suffered a demoralising series of electoral defeats in States across India. Its political stock was in uninterrupted decline and its prospects of returning to power in the next general election, due no later than late-2004, were widely believed to be non-existent. This was before Godhra presented the party of Hindutva the opportunity to make a significant comeback.

Led from the front by a new Hindutva cult figure, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP worked with desperate resourcefulness to capitalise on the communal polarisation that occurred in the wake of the Godhra killings of February 27, 2002 and the genocidal anti-Muslim pogrom unleashed "in retaliation" by the militant forces of the Hindu Right, with state sanction and complicity. That the Gujarat triumph was watered by the blood of over a thousand people virtually all of them Muslims butchered in the pogrom and fertilised by a disinformation and hate campaign of extraordinary viciousness is widely recognised in the media and polity.

Such a triumph was in the making for many months and the signs were plentiful. While the BJP pressed aggressively for early elections, other forces, notably the Election Commission of India, insisted on a semblance of normalcy returning to the State before Assembly elections could be held. As Yogendra Yadav points out in his post-poll analysis in this issue, the sense of suspense and uncertainty generated over the electoral outcome was not based on ground realities. A pre-election public opinion survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and co-sponsored by Frontline and NDTV revealed the truth of a "one-sided contest" with the BJP opening up a double digit percentage point lead over the Congress and heading for an electoral sweep. It is now clear that the media and political speculation suggesting a close contest in Gujarat reflected, chiefly, wishful (honourably secular and democratic, but nevertheless wishful) thinking.

On the face of it, the ten percentage point gap between the BJP and the Congress is not a new development. This is, after all, the margin the party of Hindutva won in Gujarat in the 1995 and 1998 Assembly elections and also in the 1996 Lok Sabha contest. The political track record demonstrates that the BJP does not have a stronghold like Gujarat anywhere else in the country. But judging by the results of panchayat and municipality elections and also byelections over the past two years, that stronghold was under threat. By all accounts, Gujarat was ready for a democratic regime change before Godhra happened.

Given this background, the story behind Hindutva's 2002 triumph in the State is both interesting and disturbing. That "the violence worked" decisively in the constituencies that witnessed significant anti-Muslim violence is clear from every serious reading of the electoral outcome. It is clear that Godhra, the state-sanctioned anti-Muslim pogrom, and communal polarisation in society made for a volatile and extremely potent mix that reduced the electoral contest to a one horse race. That the BJP won 52 of the 65 violence-affected Assembly constituencies on the basis of a 12 percentage point swing (compared with a one percentage point swing in the rest of the State) and was actually 19 percentage points ahead of the Congress in this group of constituencies (compared with five percentage points in the remaining constituencies) tells the story of this highly distorted election. Elsewhere in the State, where the impact of the violence was muted or weak, the contest was more normal and the BJP suffered setbacks. But this was overwhelmed by the electoral harvest of violence, hate and communal polarisation in central and north Gujarat.

Two major lessons have been highlighted by this election analysis. The first conclusion, which is that the BJP "simply recovered its strongest support base in the country," a base the like of which it does not have anywhere else, is somewhat heartening. It suggests "clear limits to exporting the Gujarat model" to other parts of India. It follows that the Gujarat `laboratory experiment' cannot be replicated at will. Thus there is no need for secular and democratic forces to be intimidated by the scale of Hindutva's victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections, let alone to panic.

The second lesson is more sombre. It is that "the BJP managed to recover its eroding social base with a carefully crafted and subtly executed politics of hatred." This defines the nature of the challenge that secular and democratic forces face at this juncture. Overestimating the strength of communal forces is as much a hazard as underestimating it. If a defeatist perception takes shape that the `majoritarian' aspect of `Hindu nationalism' has triumphed permanently and resulted in a fanaticised majority among the Hindu population, then there remains little to fight for.

Avoiding such defeatism is the main challenge before the Congress. It must not fall back on the compromising policy that set the stage for the vile and barbaric act of demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva hordes.

Today more than ever, the Congress leadership needs to look self-critically at the fate of its `soft' response to the Hindu Right's aggressive communal mobilisation. It also needs to redefine its longstanding policy on alliances, which makes joining forces with other secular parties to defeat the Hindu Right such a difficult and messy business.

The correlation of communal and secular, democratic forces in the country needs to be re-examined in the light of what has happened in the latest electoral round. The Hindutva agenda needs to be confronted and driven back on the basis of an uncompromising commitment to secularism, confidence in the people's good sense and wisdom, and united popular mobilisation and struggle.

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