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Guj polls linked to India?s future?

What has come as a surprise in Gujarat is not the BJP?s victory, but its size and the manner in which it has been achieved.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2002 14:21 IST
Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha

What has come as a surprise in Gujarat is not the BJP’s victory, but its size and the manner in which it has been achieved.

Defying both opinion polls and exit polls, Modi’s BJP won 126 seats — 70 per cent of the total and nine more than it had won in 1998. What is even more significant is that it won despite a nearly five per cent increase in the Congress’s share of the vote from 34.85 to 39.31 per cent.

It won because its vote also jumped by just under five per cent from 44.81 to 49.79 per cent. The losers were smaller parties and independents whose share of the vote fell from 20.34 per cent to 10.92 per cent.

These figures reflect the huge polarisation of the vote that took place in Gujarat in the wake of Godhra and the subsequent killings. In the sharpest possible departure from the actions of previous governments, not only in Gujarat but all over India, Narendra Modi took it upon himself to stoke the polarisation and turn it into an election strategy.

He did this in the teeth of Vajpayee’s condemnation and Advani’s cautionary advice. To do so, he fanned not just communal passions among Gujarati Hindus, but the basest chauvinist and regional nationalist resentment against the rest of India, the English language media, the country’s ‘pseudo-secular’ intelligentsia, Christians and against Sonia Gandhi and J.M. Lyngdoh, because they are Christians and so, by definition, anti-national.

And the strategy paid off. But at what cost, and to whom? The first victim is the BJP itself. While the party may look the same and be led by the same faces, the inescapable truth is that it is in the process of being transformed from within. Praveen Togadia got it exactly right when he said that the Gujarat victory was of the VHP over the BJP. Till Godhra and its aftermath, the VHP had been on the outer fringes of Indian politics — more of a liability than an asset to the BJP.

This became painfully clear when it launched a campaign against Christian missionaries in 1998 that culminated in the murder of Graham Staines and his family in Orissa. The VHP, however, came into its own when it declared a state-wide bandh against the Godhra killings, and triggered the slaughter of almost 900 Muslims in the riots that followed.

Since then it has been in the forefront of Modi’s effort to keep communal and chauvinist passions alive in Gujarat. Modi’s victory is therefore the VHP’s victory. In the months to come, as the Sangh parivar ratchets up its campaign in Himachal, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the distinction between the two organisations will disappear.

Indeed, Modi is no longer attacking ‘pseudo-secularists’. The targets of his ire are now the ‘secularists’.

A second loser is Vajpayee himself. When asked, during the BJP parliamentary party’s victory celebrations in Delhi, whether the party would apply the Gujarat formula to the five above-mentioned states in December next year, he countered, “Will Godhra be repeated in those states?” He then added for good measure that “there should have been stronger criticism of Godhra from Muslims”.

Factually, Vajpayee may be right on both counts. Had there been no Godhra outrage, there would have been no reprisal killing of Muslims and no ‘Modi wave’. While there was Muslim criticism of Godhra, the media’s attention got diverted to the horrific aftermath. This created the impression in Gujarat that the English media, and Muslims in particular, did not much care when Hindus died.

But the mere fact that he felt obliged to make these remarks shows how much on the defensive he now is. Let it not be forgotten that this is the same man who said in his musings from Kumarakom that India’s strength lay in its (religious and ethnic) diversity, and who went on national TV on March 1 this year to call the riots in Ahmedabad a black mark on the face of the nation.

Another casualty will be peace and social harmony. In the coming months, as happened before the parivar’s descent upon the Babri masjid in 1990, gaurav yatras, Godhra asthi pujans and a host of other such processions will criss-cross the northern states. As also happened in 1990, many of these will deliberately go through Muslim localities, stop before mosques and madrasas and shout hate slogans derisory of Islam. Inevitably, some Muslim hotheads will respond with violence. Massive reprisals will then follow and it will be the Muslims’ fault for having started it.

The VHP will use the riots and killings that could follow to inflame Hindus. They will frighten and alienate Muslims throughout northern India. Can anyone guarantee that several hundreds among them will not join the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and other terrorist cells that are sprouting all over India?

Let us not fool ourselves. Modi may have won. Arun Jaitley may have obtained his revenge on Vajpayee. But India is looking into the mouth of Hell.

The fourth victim of the polarisation that the BJP/VHP wants to bring about will be economic development. If there is any country in the world that needs to put aside sectarian squabbles and focus its energy upon tackling intractable economic problems, it is India. Industry has been in the grip of a structural stagnation for six years with the rate of growth never having gone beyond 5 per cent (compared to 9 per cent in the Eighties and 13.1 per cent in 1995-96). Public fixed investment, as a ratio of GDP is barely 40 per cent of what it was in 1989-90. Private investment has been collapsing after 1997.

These have ensured a near-stagnation of domestic consumer demand which is reflected in an unnatural absence of inflation. The share market has been in the doldrums with the sensex around the 3,000 mark for the last four years. Banks find few takers for their funds and have now parked more than half of them in government securities. The final victims of this stagnation have been the youth of India for whom there are no jobs. Job growth in the organised sector has been negative for the last three years and has been slowing in the unorganised sector as well.

All this can be traced to the massive and still rising fiscal deficit of the Centre and the states, which now exceeds 10 per cent of the GDP. The Vajpayee government has been struggling ineffectually for four years to control it, and under the stewardship of Jaswant Singh (advised by Vijay Kelkar) it had begun to appear that some headway might at last be made.

The VHP’s victory, the fillip it will give to the swadeshi lobby in the RSS and BJP, and the turmoil which the attempt to repeat Gujarat in the north will unleash will not only distract all attention away from this delicate task but make any progress on economic reforms impossible.

The price of a minimum of two years’ additional delay will be paid by the youth including the ones that the BJP/VHP are so assiduously wooing. For what it is threatening to do is deprive them of the little hope they still have — of a worthwhile future.

The ultimate victim of Hindutva will be India. I am referring not to the physical India, with its 700,000 villages and a billion people, but to the ‘imagined community’ that resides in all our minds and to which we give our unstinting allegiance. That India, whose strength rested throughout history upon its diversity and its toleration of sheer difference, that was captured with poetic beauty by Vajpayee in his musings.

The last Indian ruler to have forgotten this was Aurangzeb. Forced by the so-called Afghan lobby in his court to distance himself from the Rajput princes, and enact a series of discriminatory laws against Hindus, he found himself facing one rebellion after another. For 325 years, as the Mughal empire spiralled out of control, Aurangzeb ran from one end of the country to the other, trying to douse the flames that he had lit. When he died near Aurangabad, the Mughal treasury was bankrupt and disintergration followed.

Isn’t it ironic that this is the emperor that Modi, Togadia and their ilk are now doing their best to emulate?

First Published: Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST