D-day in Hindutva's lab

A CLOSE finish is likely in the December 12 elections to the Gujarat Assembly. It is perhaps for the first time in the State's electoral history that a clear winner hasn't been sighted well before the poll date.

However, a hung Assembly is highly improbable because there is no third force in existence in the State and the smaller parties including the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party or the Samata Party are unlikely to pose much of a challenge to the two main contenders, the BJP and the Congress. The possibility of a few independents making the task difficult for the two main rivals to touch the magic figure of 92 is, however, not ruled out at this stage.

The ruling BJP has openly played the communal card. But will it carry the day? In the 1990s, the "Hindutva" wave generated by L. K. Advani's "rath yatra" and the demolition of the Babri Masjid that sparked communal riots in several parts of Gujarat had earned the BJP a two-thirds majority (in the 1995 elections). In 1998, though there was no Hindutva wave, the misadventure by the then BJP rebel, Shankarsinh Waghela, now the State Congress president, in destabilising BJP Ministries twice in three years, swept the party back to power with a near two-thirds majority. It was more of a pro-Keshubhai Patel sympathy wave coupled with the anger the people felt against the Congress for supporting Mr. Waghela in his misadventures that favoured the BJP. At that time, the people had been looking for a viable alternative to the Congress which had dominated Gujarat politics ever since the State's formation in 1960 barring a few years of supremacy for the Swatantra Party, mainly formed by the erstwhile rulers of the princely states, in the late 1960s, and the Janata Party launched by the former Gujarat strongman, Morarji Desai. Though its earlier "avtaar", the Jana Sangh, could not make much inroads, the BJP with its strong message of "Hindutva" succeeded.

For, by the time the BJP came on the scene, the Congress' "KHAM" (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) theory propagated in the early 1980s to recapture power which had gone to the "Janata Morcha'' in the wake of the imposition of the Emergency, had opened the floodgates of castiest politics. The Congress' perceived links with notorious underworld dons did not help either.

The BJP quickly seized the opportunity and made Gujarat its laboratory for experimenting with Hindutva. It pitted the dominant "Patels" and the educationally and socially backward classes against the Kshatriya, Dalit and tribal vote bank of the Congress. By the time the Congress realised what was happening, it had already alienated the upper and middle class sections, the youth and other opinion-builders in society and had driven them to the BJP camp. Through concerted efforts by its sister organisations, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, the BJP has completely busted the "KHAM" theory, taking away a large chunk of Dalit and tribal supporters from the Congress, as indicated by their active participation in the post-Godhra riots.

Realising that the communal card alone could boost it to number one in the State, the BJP readily sacrificed its share in power it held jointly with the Janata Dal after the 1989 elections to "uphold the cause of Hindutva". The 1995 elections saw the Congress in the wilderness.

But over-confidence may prove to be the BJP's undoing this time because, despite the heavy odds and loss of power, the Congress could always retain its support base of between 30 and 34 per cent of the votes polled.

The BJP's assured support base is almost the same percentage. It is the floating votes, influenced by national and international events, the price rise or other factors affecting the day-to-day lives of the people that decide the final outcome of an election if there is no "wave".

In the months before the Godhra train carnage and the communal riots, the indications were that the Congress was fast regaining ground at the cost of the BJP. The party that lost 19 of the then 20 district panchayats, almost all the taluka panchayats and all the six municipal corporations in the State to the BJP in 1995, staged an emphatic return in 2000 totally reversing the trend. As many as 23 of the 25 district panchayats (increased by reorganisation of the districts in 1997), 171 of the 210 taluka panchayats and two of the six municipal corporations were back in the Congress kitty.

The lack-lustre performance of the Keshubhai Patel Government, large-scale complaints of corruption and its abject failure to cope with a series of natural calamities such as drought and cyclone capped by the disastrous earthquake of January 2001, and the BJP's subsequent defeat in the two State Assembly byelections and a parliamentary byelection, ensured the advent of Narendra Modi deposing Mr. Patel in October last year.

An election to the State Assembly about a year back would have meant a total white-wash for the BJP. Mr. Modi accepted the challenge of reversing the trend in a short period of one year hoping for some "miracles". And then came Godhra. But with nothing much to show in the performance of the Government, the BJP's drum-beating about its achievements and the projection of Mr. Modi as the "number one Chief Minister" may not take the party very far. With the exception of the south Gujarat region where the rainfall is usually high and was near-normal this year also, acute shortage of drinking water and power has gripped Kutch-Saurashtra, north Gujarat and parts of central Gujarat regions. The failure of the BJP Government to implement new power projects causing supply shortages of which the farm sector is the worst sufferer, and tardy implementation of the water supply projects coupled with the delay in the construction of the Narmada dam for a variety of reasons, have disappointed the rural masses. The impact of globalisation causing the closing down of a large number of industrial units has given rise to a serious unemployment problem. In addition, the people of Kutch, still living under an open sky in the aftermath of the earthquake, are seething. It will be difficult for the BJP to convince the voters, particularly the rural masses, only with its Hindutva rhetoric. They need water, power and employment, Hindutva alone will not provide them succour.

D-day in Hindutva's lab

In contrast, the Congress finds it equally difficult to convince the voters that if voted back to power, it would be able to solve the problems with a magic wand. The water and power problems were not created overnight, the previous Congress Governments which failed in planning and implementing long-term water and power projects were as much responsible as the BJP Government of the day.

In the absence of a viable third force, the choice in the State is restricted to the two parties both of which have been tested and failed in the public reckoning. At least for public consumption, both the parties are expressing confidence of securing a clear majority, the BJP believes that it will get two-thirds majority, and the Congress expect no less than 110 seats in the 182-member House.

While the Congress is hopeful of doing better in the Kutch-Saurashtra regions, the BJP is confident of improving its tally in central Gujarat where it was battered last time. Whether by design or accident, the communal riots were widespread in the regions that the Congress viewed as its strongholds.

Political observers believe that the Saurashtra region, with its 52 seats and where the communal riots had very little impact, holds the key to success for the two parties. It is the region where the caste factor always played a more dominant role than any other issue.

If the Congress can exploit the widespread discontent in the strong "Patel" lobby over the deposing of Mr. Keshubhai Patel, and if the urban-rural divide manifests strongly, it may taste power again.

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