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The verdict and after

December 16, 2002

Narendra Modi's astounding victory is the kind of political detonation that will reverberate through the political landscape for a long time to come. In terms of momentousness, it ranks along with the Mandal Commission report implementation, the Ayodhya movement or the Rajiv Gandhi-led decline of the Congress party. One may question it, one may hate the development, but there is no option but to accept the significance of the vote and come to terms with it.

Coming to terms with the mandate, in fact, is the key. And this acceptance and accommodation is not restricted to just the Bharatiya Janata Party/Narendra Modi's opponents - it applies to all the players in the political proscenium.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party, Meteor Modi represents both a chance and a threat. Modi's formula, which may seem unpalatable to many outside Gujarat, has the intrinsic magic of staunching the anti-incumbency factor and for that reason is a very valuable tool. The challenge lies in exploiting this formula, without in anyway casting one section of the population as the demon or without in anyway tearing asunder the fragile status quo that democratic and pluralist India has built over five decades. Can it be done? On the answer to the question rests the country's future.

It is all right for Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia to talk of changing India's history and Pakistan's geography in the afterglow of Gujarat, but those are not the kind of words that are needed now or ever. History, someone needs to tell the esteemed doctor, cannot be altered, and very often the future flows from the past.

BJP leaders may not articulate it, but the party's modus vivendi has been altered by Modi's mandate. The Gujarat chief minister now occupies the place in party hagiography that was hitherto reserved for L K Advani circa 1991. The BJP may believe in and work as a democratic organization, but it is an accepted fact that the big two - A B Vajpayee and Advani - occupy the kind of position that Shiva and Vishnu did in the Hindu pantheon; Indra may be the king of gods, but without these two nothing really moves. Modi's emergence will directly impact this scheme of things, and the party will have to come to terms with it without going through upheavals.

The challenge before Modi is tougher. After leading the state through one of the most polarized election ever, after running a campaign that consolidated the Hindu vote behind him, as the chief minister he now has the task of reaching out to all sections of the population - even those who did not and will not vote for him. Can he do that? Will the hardliners in the party and government, who have all tasted the fruits of radical Hindutva, allow him that leeway? Tokenisms are just that, but in politics they play a larger role.

Khuda ke vaaste (in the name of god, a Muslim idiom) he has asked the state to be left alone, and perhaps he will have to be tested on the ground. Democratic India has often showed that an acrimonious election doesn't spill over into governance, and maybe Modi needs to be given the benefit of the doubt at least for now. Frankly, there is not much choice in the matter, since he is after all the legally elected chief executive of the state.

Right now it cannot feel good to be a Muslim in Gujarat. Godhra and Akshardham have led to perceptions hardening about the community, and it will have to accept the new reality in Indian politics. The Muslims will have to throw up new leaders - rational, sane elements who will work out an honourable modus vivendi with the Hindutva brigade. Modi's biggest challenge is to the Muslims; they can spend the rest of their lives chafing at it. But a far more sensible option will be to accept the new development and seek peace with it - there really is no better choice before the community.

The Congress party has been blown away by the Modi phenomenon, and its challenge lies in coming to terms with, and meeting head-on, the battle on the lines drawn by the BJP. Regardless of what the latter says, aggressive Hindutva is going to be a factor in the forthcoming election to the state assemblies and the mother of all battles due in 2004. Gujarat showed the Congress is clueless about strategy to counter this. Former BJP man Shankersinh Vaghela's appointment as state Congress chief was hailed as a masterstroke by party president Sonia Gandhi. Its futility has been exposed in a matter of months. So where does the Congress party go from here?

For long it was said that Sonia Gandhi was Prime Minister Vajpayee's biggest insurance - her political naivete, which rings out every time she opened her mouth, drove more people into the BJP's arms at election time. Gujarat has shown she is no match for aggressive Hindutva, and her party will never be able to halt the new wave under her leadership.

The National Democratic Alliance, for all practical purposes, has been a one-horse show led by the BJP. Its constituents may sing a different tune every now and then, but have left no one in any doubt that political expediency is what has brought them together. They have seen the straw in the wind, that the BJP is the leader and have latched themselves to its fortunes. With the Congress' stars on the wane against the backdrop of the Hindutva phenomenon, they may make a few noises here and there to keep their votebank happy, but will continue with the alliance. Conventional political wisdom has it that the governing formation - be it single party or multi-party - loses its steam after three years in office and the last two years are spent going through the motions. The BJP has managed to alter the script:  with two years left in its tenure, it has just received a booster dose. In all probability, this will see the NDA going to the people ahead of time.

As and when that happens, the challenge will be before the people. How will the Indian voter, who has so far refused to vote along religious lines, react now? The Gujarat laboratory experiment involves creating a credible local foe, creating a fear/revulsion and then seeking votes on the basis of being the safeguard against such danger. Can such an experiment be replicated successfully in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation such as India? What is the price this will exact on India as we know it?

Fable tells us the genie, once released from the confines of its bottle, refuses to go back. The Hindutva genie, first uncorked more than a decade ago, has resurfaced. This time it will not go away in a hurry.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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