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Like it or not, it wasn’t communal

Modi’s victory will reinforce the belief in these and other laggard state governments that the electorate has changed and now wants results, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2007 01:02 IST

Narendra Modi’s victory has traumatised not only the Congress, but also a large section of the Sangh parivar. Today, short of accusing the majority of the Gujaratis of having turned fascist, the Congress has no explanations for its defeat in the state. Modi’s victory has created consternation among the high priests of Hindutva too. After his brazen use of the communal card in the 2002 election, Modi has maintained communal peace in the state, and boasts that there has neither been a communal killing nor a terrorist attack since he returned to power.

In this month’s elections, he did not repudiate his aggressive brand of Hindutva, but he did not campaign upon it. Till Sonia Gandhi called him a ‘merchant of death’, he had concentrated single-mindedly upon his government’s economic record. Like Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998, his refusal to openly espouse Hindutva drove the VHP and the Bajrang Dal into a fulminating rage. He also turned the RSS against him by refusing to fund it to the extent that it wished. Thus, while to secular India, Modi remains the Lucifer of Hindutva, to sections of the Sangh parivar, he is its Judas.

The truth is that while Modi’s campaign was never devoid of communal overtones, he did not win this election on its basis. The proof is to be found in the results for the central region of the state, where the vast majority of the communal killings took place in 2002. This had always been a Congress stronghold, for its 42 seats (in 1995 and 1998) the BJP had never won more than 20. But in December 2002, Modi capitalised brazenly upon the fear and anger generated among Hindus by the riots, to sweep 38 out of 43 seats. This year, the distribution of seats and votes has returned to the normal pattern. The Congress has won 24 seats against the five it won in 2002, and the BJP lost 20 of its recently-acquired seats to return to its median level of 18 seats. The least this demonstrates is that the Hindus of the central region had put the riots behind them. Whether the Muslims too have done so is another matter.

In the state as a whole, too, there has been at least a partial return to normalcy. Before 2002, about 20 per cent of the electorate used to vote for other parties and independents. The unprecedented polarisation caused by the 2002 riots, and the no holds-barred conflict between communalism and secularism it unleashed, caused most of this vote to gravitate to the Congress and the BJP in about equal parts. As a result, both parties gained about 10 per cent of the vote. In this election, an eighth of this new vote has shifted back to its original moorings and to the BSP.

So how did Modi beat the anti-incumbency factor and retain all but 0.5 per cent of his 49.7 per cent vote of 2002? There is only one answer: the last five years have brought the fastest growth that Gujarat has ever experienced. Between 1997-98 and 2002-03, when India was in the grip of recession, Gujarat’s per capita income grew at 2 per cent per annum. Since 2003, it has grown at 10 per cent per annum.

Not all economists would accept the view that rapid growth eases political conflict. I am one of those who has pointed out repeatedly in the past that capitalist growth immiserises sections of the population even while it enriches others and, therefore, sharpens political conflict. But what is true of normally high rates of growth may cease to be so when growth enters the stratosphere of 12-14 per cent per annum, and per capita income begins to double every seven years (that is what 10 per cent per capita growth does). The benefits from such rapid growth do trickle down to the bottom, not in the form of redistribution, but, as Angus Maddison’s data for the first generation capitalist countries show, by creating an acute hunger for labour, mainly in the services sector. Despite this, Gujarat’s rapid growth may not have eliminated losers, but it has definitely marginalised them.

The proof of this comes from Gujarat’s largest and most impoverished region — Saurashtra. Before the elections, Congress leaders were confident they would make heavy inroads into this region, which sends 58 (the largest number of) MLAs to the Vidhan Sabha. Saurashtra, with its strong feudal structure, has always voted for the BJP, and earlier the Swatantra Party. So much so that the Congress has never won more than 18 seats. That too was an unusually high figure, resulting from a backlash to the 2002 riots. This year, instead of gaining further, the Congress lost four of even those 18 seats to the BJP.

BJP sources maintain that Modi owes his victory to two other factors: a reputation for incorruptibility in a corrupt state; and a personal, sustained attention to programmes designed to meet the needs of the poor. He has made sure that every village now has an uninterrupted supply of power at least for household use. He has personally monitored the provision of drinking water systems to 5,000 of Gujarat’s 18,000 villages, and made the state ‘tanker-free’. In the same way, he has launched a Chiranjeevi Yojana and a Beti Bachao Andolan. BJP spokesmen claim that the former has brought down infant and maternal mortality rates, and the latter has increased the female to male ratio in the state’s population from 802 per 1,000 males in 2001 to 870 in 2007. There is clearly the beginnings of a Modi cult in these figures, but the election results show that some, if not a substantial part of these claims must be true.

The sooner Congress apologists stop putting the blame for their defeat on Modi’s communal platform and admit that it is high growth and an efficient, relatively corruption-free administration that has brought him back to power, the more the nation will gain from what would otherwise have been a regrettable victory. In the past decade, state governments have graduated from first not understanding liberalisation, to opposing it, to finally realising that there was something in it for them as well. Since 2003, they have increasingly begun to take the initiative in planning and soliciting bids for infrastructure and industrial projects. But progress in this has been halting and spread very unevenly across the country.

While almost three-quarters of the country, in the north, east and centre, has remained mired in the politics of caste, race and religion, and relied upon cliente-list networks built through control of government handouts, the states of the south and west have forged ahead, and are leaving the rest of India far behind. One glaring example is the $ 100 billion industrial corridor between Delhi and Mumbai, and the $ 50 billion corridor from Chennai to Bangalore. The distinctive feature of these project concentrations is that the Centre has not planned them, but only given them its blessing and sanction. The initiative has come from the concerned states. Today Bihar is starting down this road and in UP, Mayawati has plans for a 1,000-km expressway along the banks of the Ganga.

Modi’s victory will reinforce the belief in these and other laggard state governments that the electorate has changed and now wants results. Delivering these is the surest way to beat the metronomic swing from hope to disappointment, dubbed the anti-incumbency factor, that has characterised politics for the last three decades.