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Call for Vibrant India

These elections in Gujarat will, once again, serve as a barometer measuring the strength of India’s secular democracy, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Dec 13, 2007 00:53 IST

The first phase of polling in the Gujarat assembly elections is over. It is widely believed that the fate of the future government may already have been sealed in the electronic voting machines. For, any reversal for the BJP in Saurashtra and Kutch, where it had won 39 out of the 58 seats in the last elections, would upset the overall tally. One will have to wait till December 23 to know how the voters, who have maintained a scrupulous silence during the campaign, have actually chosen.

In the meantime, the war of words between UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have led to them both being served notices by the Election Commission. As the matter is now before both the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, one shall have to wait, once again, for their verdicts.

Be this as it may, it is interesting to note the shift in the BJP’s campaign strategy during the course of the election. It was widely announced that the BJP and Modi would contest these elections on the ‘plank of development’, i.e., the projection of a ‘vibrant Gujarat’. According to media reports, in the last six months, Rs 750 crore of State money was spent on propaganda. This is equivalent to the annual budget allocation by the Gujarat government on social welfare and nutrition.

However, launching his election campaign, Modi fell back on his hardcore Hindutva agenda. He described the ‘double-ruled plus’ sign on the new Rs 2 coin as a cross, alluding to the influence of the UPA Chairperson on the country and, by inference, rousing sentiments of maltreatment of the majority Hindu community through minority appeasement.

This tendency continued to intensify to the extent that as the campaigning ended for the first phase, Modi was thundering that Pota’s withdrawal by the UPA government was celebrated with the bursting of crackers in Pakistan. It is a different matter that while Pota adorned the statute books under the leadership of the then Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani (now anointed to lead the BJP government, that is, if they ever win the next general elections), Parliament, Red Fort, the Raghunath temple in Kashmir and the Akshardham temple in Gujarat were attacked by terrorists. The BJP’s campaign has never been based on such facts. Its singular strategy is to sharpen communal polarisation to consolidate the Hindu vote-bank.

It is not difficult to understand why the development plank was dropped so unceremoniously. Despite the tom-toming of a vibrant Gujarat (a la the BJP’s ‘Shining India’ campaign), the fact remains that Gujarat is one of the most indebted states in the country. Its public debt to GDP ratio is a whopping 28.5 per cent. According to official figures (widely believed to be a gross understatement), over 500 farmers in the state have committed suicide. This is primarily due to rural indebtedness, which, according to the NSS’ 55th round data, is, at around 40 per cent, widely higher than the national average of 25 per cent. Irrigated area declined by 25 per cent and agricultural production fell by 4.6 per cent during the last five years.

A UN University study reveals that poverty rose to 17 per cent from 12 per cent during this period. Its Human Development Report, 2004, states, “Gujarat has reached only 48 per cent of the goals set for human development.” On the health front, 74.3 per cent of women and 46.3 per cent of children are anaemic. In social sector spending (as a proportion of total expenditure), Gujarat ranks a lowly 19 among 21 major states. On minimum wages, it ranks 8th. Despite the fact that large tracts of the state face a drinking water crisis, the Modi administration diverted $ 255 million to supply water to industries (read: vibrant Gujarat), according to a CAG report. Further, nearly 22,000 of the one-and-a-half lakh people rendered homeless by the communal carnage of 2002 continue to remain internal refugees, unable to return to their homes.

Given the consequent growing public discontent, it is not surprising that the BJP has fallen back on its core Hindutva agenda. Intensifying such a communal pitch, Modi justified the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife, Kauserbi. He has, however, in his reply to the Election Commission, claimed the contrary. Notwithstanding this, the case of Sohrabuddin’s killing in an alleged encounter stands before the apex court today. Instead of waiting for the judicial process to conclude, according to media reports, Modi exhorted the audience at an election rally, asking them what should be done to a man who stored illegal arms. Some in the crowd chanted that he should be killed. Modi took this as an endorsement and said: “Well, that is it.”

This reminds us of an incident in Hitler’s Germany at the time of the ascendancy of Nazi fascism. The Skarlek brothers, alleged criminals, were hanged at the order of the crowd with the justification that the State shouldn’t waste its time and resources in allowing them to face a trial in the courts. This is fascist justice that Modi is emulating. Under a modern democracy, even hardened criminals must be treated under the law of the land, which is based on the time-tested principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Modern civil societies have since long abandoned attitudes that suggest that criminals can be hanged without being provided an opportunity to defend themselves. Such norms, however, are an anathema to Modi’s ‘vibrant’ Gujarat.

Fascism is not the mere replacement of the ruling party in an election. Fascism represents a change in the character of rule — the replacement of parliamentary democracy by an open terroristic dictatorship. It is this crucial change in the form of rule that needs to be prevented if India’s secular, democratic character is to be preserved.

As the second phase of the polling approaches, one needs to note four aspects that have emerged during the course of this campaign. First, the index of opposition unity is much stronger this time. In the last elections, Modi gained 22 seats at least due to the division of votes between the Congress and the NCP. There has been a better seat adjustment this time around. Second, the BJP’s index of internal unity is much weaker given the growing dissidence. Third, the appeal of Hindutva is not as strong as it was in 2002. Fourth, the slogan of vibrant Gujarat is turning out to be increasingly counterproductive.

These factors themselves may give a further impetus to communal polarisation. Thus, these elections in Gujarat will, once again, serve as a barometer measuring the strength of India’s secular democracy. Given India’s rich diversity and vast plurality, the only way to sustain our unity and integrity is by strengthening the bonds of commonality among this diversity and not by seeking to impose a uniformity upon this diversity. Such an imposition is precisely what the communal forces seek, thus harming not only the security and welfare of the minorities but endangering the very future of a modern, secular, democratic India. It is this future that has to be safeguarded today in order to strengthen it further.

MP, Rajya Sabha and Member, CPI(M) Politburo