It seems to be an Iron Law of Indian Politics that every time a political party appears to support the majority in a communal riot, that party wins an impressive victory at the next election.
In 1984, some Congress functionaries participated in the pogrom against the Sikhs in Delhi: the party then went on to win the biggest landslide victory in its history. In 1993, Bal Thackeray proudly declared that Shiv Sena cadres had been involved in the anti-Muslim riots that rocked Bombay. Soon after, the Sena finally succeeded in dislodging the Congress and winning the election. So it should come as no surprise that Narendra Modi and the BJP have won an impressive victory in Gujarat.
Mr Modi has ridden the communal bandwagon all the way to total electoral success.
Three questions now assume paramount importance. The first relates to Narendra Modi. When Mr Modi was a Delhi-based RSS functionary, he had a reputation for being a relatively moderate, slightly detached figure. Many people suspect that his sudden transformation into a fire-breathing Praveen Togadia clone had more to do with expediency than conviction. Mr Modi’s strategy — if indeed it was a strategy — has yielded the electoral pay-off he was looking for.
What role will he play now? It is clear that he has prime ministerial ambitions. It is as clear that to prove these ambitions, he will have to adopt a more moderate persona. But will he end up as a prisoner of his own rhetoric? Will the likes of Mr Togadia and the VHP allow him to resile from the hardline positions he has adopted?
The second question relates to Gujarat. Under five years of BJP rule — and this predates Mr Modi’s ascendance — the state of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel has become a laboratory for a particularly mindless brand of Hindutva. In the process, the Gujarati’s reputation for culture, civilised behaviour and economic initiative has suffered. Yesterday’s victory demonstrates just how polarised the polity has now become — it must be a sad and lonely experience to be a minority in Gujarat today.
Narendra Modi has the opportunity — should he so desire — to use his massive mandate to return Gujarat to the path of progress and prosperity. If he squanders the next two or three years, it will be too late for Gujarat.
The final question is about the future of the BJP. Over the last few months it has become increasingly clear that there is now a generational divide within the party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is seen by many of the Sangh parivar’s Young Turks as having become a tiresome irrelevance. He has been openly attacked by the VHP and privately within his own party. Even L.K. Advani, once the darling of the hardliners, is now accused of having gone too soft; of being unwilling to stand up for militant Hindutva. It does not help that, till Gujarat, the BJP had lost every assembly election. These defeats are being laid at the door of the older leadership.
The worrying thing about Gujarat is that the Sangh parivar will misread the message of the victory. It may forget that the victory would not have happened without the horror of the Godhra massacre. And it may conclude that the way ahead is to spread anti-Muslim venom, to polarise the electorate and to trample on India’s secular traditions. Without the special circumstances that manifested themselves in Gujarat, such a strategy will not provide any electoral success. Instead, it will violate Hinduism’s sacred tradition of tolerance and end up destroying the stability of the world’s largest democracy.
The BJP has won. But India should not lose.