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Gujarat Cong gaining from unexpected quarters

The Congress is gaining from the anti-BJP campaign run by secular activists and NGOs in Gujarat, even though these groups are opposed to it ideologically.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2002 23:40 IST

Down and out in Gujarat until a few months ago, the Congress party suddenlymight be within striking distance of power, and the credit doesn't go just to its leaders.

Apart from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) own mistakes, the Congress owes the revival of its fortunes to several activists and NGOs who have campaigned against the current dispensation, helping the former in the process.

Ironically, most of these groups and activists had opposed the Congress when prime minister Indira Gandhi clamped Emergency rule in the country in 1975 and remain ideologically distant from it even now.

But they see the Congress as the lesser of the two political evils in India today, perceiving the BJP a communal and divisive party.

"As there is no other alternative but the Congress to fight the BJP in Gujarat, we have to support it. We are not principally in agreement with the Congress, but since we are here to fight against fascist forces like the BJP, we are supporting it," said Thakurdas Bang, a senior Gandhian who participated in the struggle against Emergency and was imprisoned.

There are many like him who have campaigned against the BJP ahead of Thursday's elections to Gujarat's 182-member assembly.

Leading the pack of NGOs against the BJP was the Rashtriya Yuva Sangathan, or national youth association, a Mumbai-based group of social and non-political activists led by Kumar Prashant.

The association chief likened the current BJP campaign to the Congress re-election bid led by Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay in 1977.

Prashant was a confidant of political activist Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, who led a mass stir against Indira Gandhi that culminated in several political groups forming the Janata Party that humiliated her in the 1977 parliamentary elections.

Prashant, whose association's roots lie in the anti-emergency movement, said the Congress campaign for the 1977 polls saw its star canvasser Sanjay Gandhi whizzing through the streets of Amethi, Allahabad, Lucknow and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in his motorcade.

"When Sanjay Gandhi would ostentatiously display his wealth in expensive campaigns, we workers of the Sangharsh Vahini (as his association was then called) would disperse in the crowds and distribute pamphlets exposing the misdeeds of the Congress regime," recalled Prashant.

"Like Sanjay in 1976, this time the BJP is campaigning with full gusto. More than zeal, it is a last ditch attempt by the BJP stemming from a deep-rooted sense of insecurity. Like the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, (Chief Minister) Narendra Modi-led BJP does understand that its credibility has suffered a major blow after the violence in Gujarat," said Prashant.

Gujarat was in the grip of sectarian violence February-May following the burning of a train in Godhra, about 150 km from here. The violence claimed at least 1,000 lives across the state. Modi's government was accused of backing tacitly mob attacks on Muslims through the carnage.

In fact, the BJP's predecessor Jana Sangh had joined JP in his campaign against Indira Gandhi.

"When we joined hands with the Jana Sangh, we did not realise we were giving support to fascist forces. That time it (Jana Sangh) did not even have the strength to stand on its own and relied on us. We never realised it would emerge in the form of a fascist monster called the BJP," said Gandhian Bang.

According to Bang, though Indira Gandhi's attitude in the emergency days was very much condemnable, the "BJP's deeds are unpardonable".

"The movement against Indira Gandhi was against her dictatorship, but here we are fighting against a poisonous ideology," said Bang.

SAHMAT, an NGO led by Shabnam Hashmi, sister of assassinated theatre personality Safdar Hashmi, distributed about two million pamphlets across Gujarat to educate voters about the real issues to make sure they did not get swayed by the BJP's rhetoric on religion.

Prashant, another NGO led by rights worker Cedric Prakash, distributed pamphlets informing voters in villages of north Gujarat's Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts of their political rights. And the Society for Promotion of Rational Thinking held rallies in sectarian violence-hit neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad.

The Congress party noted this unexpected support with gratitude.

"We are thankful for all those who have extended a helping hand in our fight against the BJP," said state Congress chief Hasmukh Patel.

"Had the fight directly been between Narendra Modi and (state Congress chief) Shankersinh Vaghela, it would have been a tough one indeed for us. But this time all democratic forces in the country descended on Gujarat for an anti-fascist campaign.

"If the Congress comes to power in Gujarat, we will not take the sole credit. Part of it will go to the anti-fascist campaign run by these activists," said Patel.

First Published: Dec 10, 2002 23:40 IST