After Gujarat

For Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP's election victory in Gujarat inaugurated the party's "vijay parva". He was not wrong in invoking the Mahabharata. For, if we do not witness, now, politics of a certain epic quality, it will be so much the worse for India — both Mr. Vajpayee and I agree here, if for opposite reasons and with opposite hopes. For, the coming parva (phase) of Indian politics will show if there are any forces in the country which can stop Hindutva — turn the "vijay parva" of Mr. Vajpayee's hopes into a "yuddha parva" in which they will acquit themselves honourably, and hopefully arrest and reverse the advance of Hindutva.

But if a "yuddha parva" it is going to be, it has had a dismal beginning: it seems to have begun with Arjuna relinquishing his Gandiva, not picking it up. The Congress put up no fight at all, preferring cousinhood with Hindutva and its upper and middle class and caste constituency over principle and betraying, once again, the millions of lower caste and class and minority voters whom the polarised development of Gujarat has offered to it as its natural constituency.

The Congress appointed a former RSS man, Shankarsinh Waghela, as PCC chief; gave the party ticket to other disgruntled BJP-ites; soft-peddled the post-Godhra violence — pretending it was not an issue, rather than making it one and fighting for justice and security for the Muslims and other persecuted minorities.

The last was, surely, particularly galling: how can a state-sponsored pogrom which took the lives of thousands not be an election issue? Not surprisingly, when the time came, those who wanted Hindutva voted for the real thing, but to those who did not — and let us remember that the BJP has been voted in on 50 per cent of a turnout of 63 per cent, i.e. 67.5 per cent of the electorate of Gujarat did not vote this Government in — the Congress failed to provide an alternative which was sufficiently different and worth voting for.

The Congress' claim that it was defeated by Hindutva amounts to an official application for political bankruptcy. This is like a general saying he lost his country a war because the enemy had an army! Of course, the BJP was going to peddle Hindutva and hate! It was the Congress' job to counter it, not buckle under it.

So far, the Congress has been unable to come up with politics of secularism, equality and development which can mould the majority of Gujarat, and with the help of kindred groups, of India, into an effective opposition. If this does not change, Hindutva will win effectively unopposed in the rest of the country too.

What we are witnessing in Gujarat is an entrenchment of the politics of Hindutva in a upper-and middle caste/class constituency which is, as Gujarat shows again, not effectively opposed by any politics of the bottom half of society. Emboldened by the Gujarat victory, the Sangh Parivar can be expected to try hard to make this the country's future in the course of the State Assembly elections due soon and the national elections due in 2004.

The Sangh Parivar's task is all the easier because of the particular combination of neo-liberal economic policies and high and middle-caste Hindu assertion which has become accepted in the country as the direction of India's development. Neo-liberal economic policy enjoys almost complete cross-party consensus. It exacerbates economic inequality and creates a large and, relative to the poverty of the majority, a very powerful and unified propertied class. Whereas it was once thought that the rural and agrarian propertied in India had economic interests which pitted them against the urban and industrial propertied, today these two groups increasingly intermix, particularly as rich farmers invest in other spheres of economic activity. They thus have interests in common and against those of the workers and the poor.

Politically, Hindutva at once justifies this inequality in terms of an imputed cultural superiority of the upper and "sanskritised" middle caste propertied over the minorities and lower castes, unifies the otherwise caste-divided propertied class, and helps the propertied to keep the rest in their place — whether by directly othering them (as, pre-eminently, with Muslims) or patronisingly "including" them in the Hindu nation as defined by them on second class terms (as with tribals).

The propertied class has been especially successful in doing this because it works with the grain of Brahminical biases which its core constituency already holds.

As one of India's most economically and industrially advanced States, Gujarat sports a particularly substantial propertied class, which, moreover, is highly unified across the rural-urban divide. Perhaps, particularly because there are more caste divisions in Gujarat, and little sense of Gujarati identity, Hindutva provides the only ideology which can unite this propertied class politically. It is not a little ironic that it is Hindutva which has given the idea of "Gujarati asmita" real currency for the first time.

The so-called Mahagujarat movement actually moved very little, Gujarat had its "statehood" virtually pushed upon it by the far more powerful Maratha movement on the other side. Finally, Gujarat's significantly higher rate of emigration hitherto has meant that there is an NRI factor: the NRIs' pro-Hindutva inclinations have a demonstration effect on their kin back home while their funding and activism within the Sangh Parivar have a power to influence Gujarati politics rather more directly.

Gujarat is not different, not sui generis as we may be tempted to think in the aftermath of this stupefying BJP victory. It does, however, exemplify how Hindutva works at the leading edge of India's development. It also exemplifies another grim reality.

The social groups, castes and classes whose interest lies in opposing this politics of Hindutva based on the upper and middle castes and classes — the poor, lower castes and the minorities, the famous KHAM groups — have over the course of the past three decades not only become the natural constituency of one single party, the Congress, they have also been repeatedly betrayed by the Congress. December 2002 was only the latest chapter in this fundamentally abusive relationship.

A sober scrutiny of the record reveals the true scale of the BJP's victory and the Congress' surrender. These must be understood if they are to be prevented in the rest of the country in the months and years to come.

Attention had focussed on Central Gujarat, around the "epicentre" of Godhra, where the BJP made the most spectacular gains. Perhaps the most important point to note is that while the BJP has indeed "harvested hate" in this election, it was not responsible for the victory. That was based on an underlying solidity of a Hindutva constituency among the upper and middle classes and castes — the Brahmins, Banias, Upper Kshatriyas, Patidars and upper sections of the OBCs — which was perhaps most plainly revealed in Yogendra Yadav's pre-election opinion poll for NDTV and Frontline, the most accurate predictor of the results. The focus on the BJP sweep of Panchmahals, Dahod and Vadodara districts, and near sweep of the rest of central Gujarat, surrounding the "epicentre" of Godhra is misleading: even if the BJP gains in this region are cancelled, and the last election's position added to the reduced seats it won in South Gujarat, North Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra, it would have won a majority, if a reduced one. Any demurring on this is simply a refusal to face the facts of the electoral record.

The other important fact remains that the Congress won one seat less than it had won in 1998 and on a reduced percentage of the votes cast. For all the noise about the "anti-incumbency" factor, the Congress could not benefit from it. Even in the rest of the State, Congress gains were fewer than the seats the BJP managed to hold on to, and even gain. Godhra is also trotted out as an explanation for this. But surely outside central Gujarat, and even in that region, Godhra and post-Godhra cannot be full explanations. If the BJP could incite and beguile certain sections on the basis of these, there were more who would have responded positively to the opposite appeal. How come the Congress failed to mobilise on this issue? If anything, Godhra should have been the explanation of a Congress victory, not this ignominious defeat. If it is made an explanation of its defeat, it amounts to writing off Gujaratis morally in toto. While many among them have shown themselves to be such write-offs, there is no evidence that this applies to all of them. The Congress never gave them a real alternative.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the "epicentre" losses of the Congress. The key factor which lost the Congress all its seats in Panchmahals, Dahod and eastern Vadodara was the mobilisation of tribals against Muslims who have been an important trading community in this region. This is an entirely post-Godhra development and appears to follow the usual pattern of prosperous Hindu propertied groups — in this case local Banias — using riots and Hindutva against Muslim competitors. Though the region had long been Congress territory, it failed to arrest or undo this pattern. Some commentators are hopeful that the communalisation of the tribals is superficial and temporary. Were this merely a matter of the tribal culture and mindset, one could possibly be sanguine but not while there are important material interests which benefit from this communalisation.

As far as Central Gujarat outside the tribal areas — the urban areas in particular — is concerned, the sway of terrorism and anti-Pakistani sentiment among the propertied and "educated" sections, the BJP's "natural constituency" cannot be underestimated. The communalisation of the upper and middle classes and castes is deep and pervasive and the expression of caste superiority and contempt for minorities part of accepted polite discourse. Finally, there is the effect of the Narmada waters reaching these areas under the BJP Government to consider. No other issue has the sort of holy cow status which the Narmada project enjoys in Gujarat politics: between those who know they will benefit — mainly urban and industrial users of water and electricity and rural users in South and Central Gujarat — and others who have been made to believe that they will — as far out as North Gujarat — there is a near unanimous support for the Dam.

Misinterpretation also plagues the results of all the other regions which one may take one by one. If one plots the results — seats held and gained respectively by the BJP and the Congress — on a map of Gujarat, one sees much more than just the gains made by the BJP in central Gujarat.

In Kutch, the BJP lost in the four major cities — Mandvi, Bhuj, Anjar and Rapar — which the BJP had not been able to rebuild after the earthquake, earning the ire of the very middle class which forms its constituency in the rest of the State and which had formed its constituency before. All four cities were Congress gains, previously BJP seats, while the BJP gained one rural seat from the Congress and held on to the other.

The Congress did make most of its gains in Saurashtra and North Gujarat, where Sankarsinh Waghela's Kshatriya magic had its best chance. They were also areas which were relatively untouched by the riots and where the anti-incumbency factor was expected to weigh in. But these gains were paltry, nowhere near a majority of seats. Indeed, though the BJP made only three gains west of Mehsana and Ahmedabad districts (excluding Kutch), it managed to hold on to a majority of the seats. Finally, we come to South Gujarat, south of Vadodara district. The Congress did better here but not, as some news reports had it, because of Surat's commercial ethos. In Surat city as in other cities — Valsad, Navsari and Bharuch — the BJP won, on the whole. What gave the Congress its edge were the tribal areas of the Dangs, along with adjoining similar areas of Valsad, Navsari, Surat and Bharuch districts. These tribal areas are in one important sense very different from those in Central Gujarat in that they have been the scene of years of missionary work, and lately political mobilisation in the face of anti-Christian attacks, of which the Congress was the passive beneficiary.

On the flip side of this record of BJP victory one can read the conditions of Congress advance, both in Gujarat and elsewhere. The first and most important maxim is that Hindutva cannot be fought by soft Hindutva. It is the majority of the electorate, which voted against the BJP or was too disillusioned to vote, that the Congress, or if Congress proves to be too captive to its old habits, any other force which seeks to combat Hindutva must seek to forge into a new electoral constituency. This is the section of the population which has been dished out nothing but empty populist slogans in election after depressing election. If they are offered something better, they can be the constituency on which to build an immovable obstacle in the path of Hindutva. The corollary is that any political force which sees the middle class constituency as a significant part of its support base will either fail or succumb to soft Hindutva. While there are all too many honourable examples of individuals from these class backgrounds who actively oppose Hindutva, they are electorally insignificant.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Victoria, Canada. She is the author of ‘Slouching Towards Ayodhya’, a collection of essays on right wing resurgence and Hindutva, recently published by Three Essays Press.