More at stake than just one State

THE ELECTIONS in Gujarat are not about the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress winning or losing a State Assembly election. The verdict could impact on the Indian polity as no election before has. It could decide if India will continue to be governed by a Constitution that gives equal rights to all its citizens irrespective of their caste, creed or gender. It could decide whether India wants to move forward towards the goal of a society that wants education and prosperity for all its citizens, or it could bring the country to the edge of a precipice of social chaos in which the ruling passions are hate and medieval notions of revenge, in which the Hindu majority is pitted against the rest.

For several months after February 27 this year, the Modi Government in Gujarat put into practice what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's revered guru had stated in his books — that Muslims live here in Hindustan at the mercy of the majority community, asking for no privileges and getting none, that their very survival and security would depend on the goodwill of the majority community. It was a sentiment that forms part of the RSS credo and it was echoed by the present RSS chief, K. S. Sudarshan, in a message from Bangalore after the riots in Gujarat.

At the BJP's national executive committee meeting in Goa earlier this year the party had loudly and categorically rebuffed the demand of the Opposition as well as some of its allies that the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, must be sacked. The executive decided that Mr. Modi must be retained and the Assembly must be dissolved and early elections held (to cash in on the communal divide created by the riots). The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who later claimed he was in favour of accepting Mr. Modi's resignation, in fact maintained a stoic silence at the meeting. And at a public rally in Goa he declared: "Muslims, wherever they are, cannot live peacefully with their neighbours, wherever there are Muslims they spell trouble." Clearly, his impeccable swayamsevak credentials were intact. And if more proof were needed on what the BJP was aiming at, the leading light of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ashok Singhal, declared that "Gujarat was an experiment" which was to be replicated in other parts of the country, and one assumes, eventually throughout the country. The State had been carefully chosen as the laboratory for putting into practice the Hindutva ideology of the RSS.

Gujarat was best suited for this — it had a BJP Government with a young and active RSS `pracharak' as Chief Minister; the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS had spread everywhere with active volunteers in every district, block and village; the State had a history of vicious communal riots; urban Gujarat was ghettoised over a period with distinctly separate Hindu and Muslim localities; and the State was sufficiently ready to play host to the more virulent and genetically modified communal virus that the Hindutva forces were getting ready to let loose in society.

Hardly anyone doubts that if Mr. Modi is able to snatch a resounding victory in Gujarat the internal pressures within the BJP would push it into adopting a hard, fascism-like Hindutva ideology with ethnic cleansing and the so-called glory of the Hindu Aryan as its main aims. Already, Mr. Modi is being seen as the new star in the BJP firmament who has eclipsed the Vajpayee-Advani dual leadership in the party. VHP leaders have publicly declared that in this election they are not fighting the electoral battle on behalf of the BJP but for Mr. Modi. An electoral victory with a two-thirds majority for the BJP could mean a larger say for the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal in the BJP's affairs. The election results could also set off a chain reaction of competing and even more strident fundamentalism in the BJP. Already, Mr. Advani has been described as "pseudo-secular" and Mr. Vajpayee's credentials as a "nationalist" have been questioned by the Sangh on many issues, including economic.

Senior party leaders also admit that if the party is unable to prise a clear-cut victory in Gujarat, there will be considerable internal churning within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar. Many voices will come out openly against the soft-kneed attitude of the party leadership which has allowed Mr. Modi to rub the party's nose into the ground — he was able to have his way on the Ellisbridge candidate and although almost the entire leadership wanted to re-nominate Haren Pandya, Mr. Modi refused to budge. The tussle for more power at the very top which has recently seen Mr. Vajpayee give more room to Mr. Advani may also be given a sharper edge. Those in the BJP believe that a Modi defeat will certainly lead to a more assertive Mr. Vajpayee.

There is also the view that if Mr. Modi were to pull off an electoral victory, he would certainly begin to occupy the third position in the party, after Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani, and this could be the signal for a struggle within the second-rung leadership in which M. Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti may find themselves jostling with Mr. Modi for political primacy.

The outcome of the Gujarat elections could also have a profound impact on the Congress. For the first time, the party president, Sonia Gandhi, is taking on the main political rival on its home turf (which is also the home State of Mr. Advani, no doubt the man who calls all the shots in the BJP). And for the first time, she is pitted against the BJP's Hindutva ideology as the main election plank.

The results could also have an impact on the Congress' fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has repeatedly claimed to be the sole fighter against the saffron ideology. But in Gujarat, Ms. Gandhi is taking on the BJP in its most vicious and destructive `avatar'. In fact, many have charged that the Congress itself has adopted a soft Hindutva stance in the Gujarat elections with a former RSS man, Shankarsinh Waghela, leading the State unit, and several former RSS men fighting on the "secular" Congress ticket.

Repeatedly the BJP has alleged that too much has been made of the massacres in Gujarat that followed the Godhra carnage. While it is true that different parts of the country have seen riots in which hundreds of people were killed, never before was the complicity of the Government so obvious. After three days of anti-Sikh rioting in Delhi following the Indira Gandhi assassination the Government did wake up, the then Lieutenant-Governor and Police Commissioner were transferred, first information reports were registered, and certainly the Congress did not continue to justify the violence against Sikhs as justified action in reaction to the assassination. The other important aspect of the Gujarat election is that Mr. Modi has tried to equate the entire Muslim population of Gujarat to Pakistan, and his caricature of `Mian Musharraf' is nothing but an attack on the minorities.

The fact is that it was his leader, Mr. Vajpayee, who invited `Mian Musharraf' for the Agra Summit and plied him with the choicest kebabs and ensured for him a grand view of the Taj Mahal from his hotel room. `Mian Musharraf' was also allowed to occupy several hundred kilometres of India's land in and around Kargil by the BJP-led Government and the Army's jawans had to pay with their lives to correct the mistakes made.

Finally, the BJP may find that it has indulged in overkill, as it did with the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in Uttar Pradesh. Not all the people can be fooled all the time, and even in Gujarat, where the BJP is banking heavily on communal "polarisation", the people will begin to ask inconvenient questions related to roads, jobs, water and electricity, corruption, sinking cooperative banks, and all that affects everyday lives.

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