Their message was short and sharp — aimed solely at demonising the Muslims. In the aftermath of Godhra and against the backdrop of the worldwide Islamic terrorism, their tactics were bound to succeed. What also helped them in heightening the fear about the Muslim world was not only the juxtapositioning of Miyan Musharraf against Modi, but also the Sangh parivar’s invectives against Muslim invaders of the medieval ages.
It was a combination, therefore, of the past and present atrocities of the Muslims which formed the bedrock of the BJP’s campaign.
In contrast to this focused approach, the Congress muffed its lines. Indeed, this has been the bane of the party ever since the death of its last powerful speaker, Indira Gandhi. But it isn’t only that the Congress does not have effective campaigners, it also doesn’t seem to have a fixed ideology. As a hangover of its ‘platform’ brand of politics of the pre-Independence period when it accommodated all kinds of people and viewpoints in its ranks, the Congress today gives the impression that it doesn’t know what it stands for.
As a result, it equivocates on secularism, on reforms, on even which of the two — Priyanka or Rahul — will inherit the mantle of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Since the voter remains uncertain about the party’s policies, he is wary of choosing it in a situation where political tension has been deliberately whipped up by another party, as in Gujarat.
An examination of the Congress’s much vaunted success in 15 states in recent years will show that it has won mainly on the basis of the anti-incumbency factor in a situation of relative calm. But wherever the conditions have been complex and tension-ridden, the Congress has failed. The prime examples in this respect are UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In all these states, its opponents have been able to mobilise various factors — caste, class or chauvinism — to deflect the Congress’s challenge.
And they have been able to do so because the voter does not know the Congress’s mind — perhaps like the Congress leaders themselves. Does the party stand for caste like Mulayam Singh and Mayawati? Yes and no. It says it doesn’t but is not averse to playing caste politics. Does the Congress stand for class-based politics? Yes and no. It is identified with the well-off in West Bengal but is unwilling to be honest about it. The result is that it cannot lay its finger on an important reason for West Bengal’s decline under the CPI(M) — the erosion of ‘bourgeois’ values like quality education.
In Gujarat, such equivocation on what the Congress genuinely believes has proved to be fatal. The party was clearly uneasy about being seen befriending the Muslims. Hence, the soft Hindutva line, flagged off by Sonia Gandhi’s visit to a temple to start the election campaign. But that deceptive ploy did not stop the BJP from advising the voters that if they were Hindus, they should vote for the BJP and if they were Muslims, they could vote for the Congress. Equally repugnant was Modi’s prediction that the BJP’s victory would be celebrated In India and the Congress’s in Pakistan.
When politics descends to such a puerile level, one can understand that the kind of wishy-washy politics which the Congress favours leads nowhere. What is needed is a clear-sighted policy, articulated in clear language. A stilted Hindi is of no help either. Besides, if the Congress was scared of emphasising secularism because of its misperception that all Hindus are admirers of Modi and Togadia, it could have shifted the focus to the need for communal harmony.
This was what Nehru did year after year, in speech after speech. His focus was on Hinduism’s eclecticism which made all the communities feel safe in India, on how India’s unity is intrinsically bound up with the ability of the followers of all religions to live together. It is only an appeal of this nature which can counter the Sangh parivar’s hate campaign. The BJP is perfectly aware of the potentiality of such a line putting it on the defensive. It is for this reason that the party runs scared whenever Godse’s name is mentioned.
When Sonia Gandhi said, therefore, that Gandhiji’s Gujarat had become Godse’s Gujarat, the BJP was quick to say that the Congress was blaming all Gujaratis. And the Congress retreated. But it is only this kind of an argument which can win the day.
For the Congress, there is no escape from such aggressive tactics from the podium because it doesn’t seem to have any grassroots organisations to carry its message to the hinterland. The BJP, however, has any number of such outfits — with seemingly limitless funds from home and abroad — which spread the poison of communalism among the gullible. Their painstaking work among the adivasis and Dalits seems to have paid handsome dividends.
In contrast, some of the Congressmen could not even be seen, let alone being heard. Digvijay Singh, the Congress’s showboy chief minister, even refused to campaign in Gujarat initially. Prior to that, he heaped praise on the Shiv Sena and banned a few books in imitation of Murli Manohar Joshi for hurting Hindu sentiments. Others like Madhavsinh Solanki and Amarsinh Chaudhuri, former stalwarts in Gujarat, were nowhere to be seen. The last one heard of Solanki was when he carried a message to Switzerland in a vain attempt to scuttle the Bofors probe.
It isn’t only that the Congress could not get its act together, it also didn’t seem to have too many friends. Laloo Yadav was there, of course, but as Modi has been quick to point out, one could hardly parade the Bihar chief minister and bemoan Gujarat’s lack of development. For all its concern for secularism, the CPI(M) was conspicuous by its absence. Neither of the two JNU revolutionaries — Sitaram Yechuri and Prakash Karat — was there to shore up support, at least in the academic world. While Harkishen Singh Surjeet probably could not make up his mind whether to support the Congress or the Samajwadi Party.
With such enemies, the BJP needs no friends. As Togadia said on TV, the party has again found an issue to exploit after the 1990 rath yatra. Its programme (pogrom?) now will be a relentless campaign against the minorities, both Muslims and Christians, and projecting itself as the only saviour of Hindus in a hostile world.
The party has realised that what counts in politics is not development but decibels, not performance but peroration. Gujarat has fallen for this trick.
Unless the Congress can effectively articulate the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the BJP’s assault on India’s secular and multicultural polity will be a cause of celebration among the mullahs in Pakistan.