There are moments when political commentators must abandon political correctness and speak their mind. Despite Narendra Modi and the BJP winning the Gujarat elections, it is a pyrrhic victory. It marks the failure of the BJP’s Hindutva plank in a state that has been notoriously labelled as the laboratory of this dubious ultra-nationalist plank. Modi’s win has also been at the expense of the party and is the victory of demagoguery, smugness and unbridled hubris. Ironically, Modi himself is a loser despite the win. A man who claims to lead 5 million Gujaratis can only take satisfaction in the fact that many among these 5 million people there are supporters of an unprincipled sociopath.
Modi’s spin-doctors have crowed in the past few weeks about Modi the phenomenon, representing economic reforms, toughness, entrepreneurial modernity, managerial efficiency and the New Gujarat. This is indeed true to an extent. But it also represents a Gujarat that is intolerant, harbours, nourishes and celebrates an inflamed sectarian nationalism, makes a virtue of greed and uses the democratic principles of self-determination and representation to consolidate these shortcomings.
This is the dark, subterranean underbelly of democracy without strong liberal institutions. Gujaratis and Gujarat are a part of the idea of India, but an idea that is deeply flawed and one that many Indians have a right to be ashamed of sharing. It is not simply a case of Modi’s India triumphant over Bharat, but that of the normative being defeated at the hands of narrow pragmatism, rabble-rousing and sanctified criminality.
The real loser in these elections is not the Congress in Gujarat alone but the UPA government at the Centre. In its three-year tenure, it has failed to capture the imagination of the people, not merely in Gujarat, but across the country. It has been woefully soft on the one issue that it claimed as the reason for its 2004 victory, namely communalism. Its fear of alienating the Hindu vote in Gujarat propelled it to making subtle, but sordid compromises on the question of communalism. Had Modi won after having been challenged by the Congress frontally on the communal question, the Congress and the UPA could have at least claimed a moral victory in these elections. Instead, they went soft on the communal question, handed the national security plan to Modi on a platter, gave tickets of tainted BJP rebels and failed to throw up an election issue that would compete with Modi’s development rhetoric.
Compounding the UPA’s problems is the Left’s position on the nuclear deal, pitched often as an instance of capitulating to American imperialism and as a capitalist conspiracy. While the merits and demerits of the deal can endlessly be debated, the truth is that urban, middle-class Indians — and Gujarat has the most sizeable urban middle-class than anywhere else in the country — do not identify with the Left’s rhetoric. This has little to do with the nuclear question, but more to do with a growing distaste for the Left’s increasing sanctimoniousness and posing as the unofficial national bureau of moral certification on all questions of economic reform, liberalisation and subsidies. Moreover, Nandigram and the Taslima Nasreen issues have not covered the Indian Left in any glory.
In raising the sceptre of mid-term elections, painting the UPA government as a hostage to the Left’s endless carping, it is the Left that has, to a large extent, handed over victory to Modi in Gujarat. But more than anything else, the constant allusion to the UPA having sold India’s national interests to the US have hurt the Congress and UPA image most. For better or worse, most Indians seek security in the image of a strong central government and its perceived ability to stand upto external pressures, despite a parallel rhetoric of globalisation being doled out endlessly.
If there is a lesson from Modi’s victory, it is for the UPA. It has not only failed to impress an agenda of its own in the people’s imagination, but has also failed to keep the secular forces united. The recent emergence of the UNPA is a testimony to this fragmentation of the secular space. If it has to survive as a political force, it must not take the Gujarat results to heart and go in for mid-term elections. It would be a mistake to superimpose the Gujarat scenario on the
rest of the country and baulk from seeking a fresh and unfettered mandate. The only constraint for the Congress and the UPA is its singular lack of a grand idea, and not merely electoral arithmetic.
The BJP’s clever ploy of naming LK Advani as its prime ministerial candidate further complicates matters for the Congress. In an election scenario that is increasingly getting presidential, the combination of the lack of a sparkling idea and the inherent decency of Manmohan Singh might not be a match for the BJP’s ultra-nationalism and Advani’s rhetorical talents.
In politics, as in ordinary life, individuality is a difficult virtue to emulate. The Congress and the UPA must cease to wear clothes from borrowed wardrobes and learn to fit into their own clothes.
The election results in Gujarat must not, however, deter liberals from carping. They must continue to raise the question of the post-Godhra carnage orchestrated by Modi and demand that Modi be brought to book. They must hold on to a different idea of India, arguing for such old-fashioned values as civility and decency in public life. They must not be deterred from being sore thumbs, oddballs and friendless loners. This is what another almost-forgotten son of Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi, had taught this country. Add to that Rabindranath Tagore’s exhortation of ‘walk alone’ and one has the courage to face the dark and diabolical surprises democracy can throw up in one’s face.
The lesson is clear for all: after all Hitler came to power through a democratic election, laid the foundation for Germany’s modern industrial might and built the autobahns. The sword and the gun often win in the short-term, but it is the liberal pen that rewrites such victories into defeats.
Jyotirmaya Sharma is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is the author of Terrifying Vision: MS Golwalkar, the RSS and India