Is the BJP's Hold on Gujarat Overrated?

Since Gujarat was advertised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a laboratory for its experiments with Hindutva, the ideology that accords primacy of place in Indian society to Hindus, an electoral outcome in the state has considerable importance for the party. While the BJP's success will show that the saffron agenda is alive and kicking, a setback will mean much more than a similar failure in any other state.

Gujarat has acquired a special place in measuring the BJP's influence ever since the party swept to victory in the 2002 assembly elections even after the shocking riots which claimed around 1,000 lives earlier in the year.

What is more, the party's success was interpreted as a personal vindication for Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who had described the riots as 'stray incidents' and was pilloried by his critics for having aided and abetted the rioters. The BJP evidently came to believe that the voters did not mind the targeting of the Muslims.

From that time, it has been suggested that a surefire way to ensure Modi's and the BJP's success is to raise the communal temperature before an election since it allows the chief minister to mobilise the Hindu votes in his favour.

Therefore, the latest 'sting' operation by the magazine, Tehelka, which has revealed through clandestine interviews how the police collaborated with the rioters, is expected by some observers to achieve the opposite of what the editors may have intended.

Instead of provoking dismay and disgust at the shocking complicity of the police with the rapists and murderers, it has been suggested that the report and the visuals shown on TV may actually help Modi to mop up the Hindu votes, as in 2002.

Yet, the electoral scene is probably more complicated than this simplistic theory of projecting Modi as a champion of Hindus may suggest. This belief has its origin in the Godhra tragedy when 59 Hindu activists engaged in the campaign for a temple in Ayodhya were burnt alive when their train compartment was set on fire, allegedly by Muslims. The riots were a reprisal for this heinous act.

But in the elections later in the year in the Godhra constituency, the BJP secured no more than 0.5 percent more votes than the Congress. As a commentator noted at the time, what a waste of a riot!

In fact, the BJP's seemingly runaway success in winning 127 seats against the Congress' 51 gave a somewhat misleading picture since the contest could have gone either way in 36 constituencies while in 28 others, the BJP's margin of victory was less than 3 percent.

And in the constituencies where the BJP defeated the Congress by a wide margin, an alliance between the non-BJP parties -- Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and Samajwadi Party -- might have tilted the scales the other way.

The impression that has gained ground, therefore, that the BJP has Gujarat in its pocket by the courtesy of Modi may not be entirely correct. In any event, both the BJP and the Congress increased their vote share in 2002 by 5 percent from 1998, with the former's percentage going up from 44.8 to 49.8 and the Congress' from 34.8 to 39.2.

Since the voter turnout was 61.5 percent, the BJP's share of 49.8 meant that, overall, the party secured about 30 percent of the popular vote, meaning that as high as 70 per cent were either against the BJP or did not care to vote.

Arguably, therefore, the BJP's hold on Gujarat is overrated. There is little doubt that if the Congress can cobble together an alliance of likeminded parties this time, it will be able to give its principal opponent a run for its money.

As it is, the BJP is facing considerable internal problems with one former chief minister, Suresh Mehta, having left the party and another, the influential Keshubhai Patel, making no bones about his opposition to Modi.

The chief minister has become something of a bete noire to large sections in his own party, who had earlier hailed him as a man destined for higher things, mainly at the central level. Even now, he is projected by his admirers as a possible future prime minister.

Modi himself has been trying desperately to turn the focus away from riots to his admittedly creditable work in accelerating Gujarat's development, an achievement that has been acknowledged by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, even though it is associated with the Congress.

But it is probably this shifting of emphasis from Hindutva to development that has angered the hardliners in the saffron brotherhood, mainly in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which harbours extreme anti-minority views. As a result, the firebrand VHP leader, Pravin Togadiya, wastes no opportunity nowadays to blast Modi.

The customary factionalism inherent in all Indian political parties is also responsible for the rift between Modi and his predecessor, Keshubhai Patel. However, this breach has evidently been strengthened by the chief minister's increasing arrogance, which has made several of his opponents in the BJP compare him with Hitler.

The volatile brews in the Hindutva laboratory are boiling, therefore, in a way that can hurt the experimenter himself.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)


More by :  Amulya Ganguli

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