No single word or phrase can describe the stunning, stupefying, quality of the Bharatiya Janata Party's electoral victory in Gujarat. The only analogy that comes even remotely close is the succession of waves of hysterical support for the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s after repeated pogroms of the Jews and the demagogic drumming up of ultra-nationalist and imperialist rhetoric about German 'honour.'
Gujarat too witnessed a complete breakdown of all processes of rational thinking and democratic competition -- amidst mass-scale dehumanisation. That alone explains why Narendra Modi could hold on to power after ignoring the worst butchery of Indian citizens since Independence, and then electorally exploit it with the utmost cynicism. It is an utter disgrace that he has been rewarded with an unprecedented victory.
Gujarat's election results overturn many established political trends. Take just three: burden of anti-incumbency, (lack of) fragmentation of the Opposition, and caste alignments. The BJP's governance was appalling. Over five years, it ground down Gujarat from India's fastest-growing state (with GDP rising at eight percent plus) to a laggard, with 1.1 percent growth and falling investment, and with a wasteland of closed factories and rampant unemployment. Crippling water and power shortages, and enormous corruption in earthquake relief, alone should have caused a five to 10 percent vote shift against the BJP.
Unlike in 1998, the BJP's opponents were united. The Kadwa Patels of Saurashtra were disaffected because their leader Keshubhai was marginalised. Other caste/tribal equations also favoured the BJP's opponents.
In the event, none of this mattered. Not even the manifest fact of a post-Godhra Constitutional breakdown, nor proof that Modi couldn't be trusted to govern responsibly, nor even the fear that Gujarat would economically collapse under him. There was no remorse in Gujarat's middle class at the bestiality visited upon thousands of human beings. What mattered was communal polarisation, primordial hatred and a perverse notion of Gujarati chauvinism -- as distinct from pride in an Indian identity.
Once this negative politics of 'us' vs 'them,' 'Miyan Musharraf' vs 'Hindu patriots,' of Gujarat's bhasmita, gripped people's minds, they -- or half of those who voted -- suspended their analytical faculties, their conscience, and succumbed to Modi's venomous rhetoric -- against their own better judgement, and their own long-term interest.
For the first time anywhere, the BJP in Gujarat has crossed the 50 percent mark in its vote-share, adding six percentage points to its 1998 score. Given the first-past-the-post system, this has translated into a disproportionate 70 percent share of assembly seats. The single most important factor that explains this is the sharp -- 10 or more percentage points -- rise in the BJP's vote in central and northern Gujarat, the two regions most affected by the post-Godhra violence.
Equally remarkable was the defeat of 11 BJP candidates considered dissidents or 'moderate' in relation to Narendra Milosevic Modi. Their defeat was brought about by the BJP's extreme Right wing in collusion with the VHP and RSS.
In contrast to the BJP's hardball tactics stand the Congress' defensiveness, timidity and soft-Hindutva approach. The Congress failed to take on communal politics. It did not recognise that a terrible madness had seized people's consciousness, which couldn't be fought by raising development issues, roping in sadhus, and by projecting former RSS pracharak and BJP chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela as its principal leader in Gujarat.
What Gujarat needed since March was a combative, head-on ideological challenge to communalism. None was mobilised either in the immediate post-Godhra period or during the election campaign. In some ways, the failure is national. If the Gujarat carnage was something unacceptable -- and a national shame -- all secular parties should have agitated the issue nationally, in the streets, in every kasba and bustee, not just in Parliament.
If Morarji Desai could force Indira Gandhi to dismiss the Nav Nirman-besieged Chimanbhai Patel regime in 1974 by going on a hunger strike, couldn't a galaxy of our Centre-Left leaders have compelled Vajpayee to dismiss Modi and impose President's Rule? There could have been no stronger case for invoking Article 356.
The Congress failed to confront Modi on the core issues of his campaign: the Godhra 'conspiracy,' Muslim 'treachery,' 'Miyan Musharraf's' support to terrorism, Gujarat's 'pride.' Sonia Gandhi ended her campaign prematurely and left the field to Modi in the crucial last two days.
The Congress underestimated the intense communalisation of the Gujarati middle class and propertied farmers. In April, I discussed some causes of the exceptional, indeed unique, strength of communalism in Gujarat: rapid industrialisation without modernisation of attitudes, values and institutions; consolidation of rigid caste identities and absence of social reform; Gandhiji's early shift to national politics (leaving Gujarat to Right wing forces); the recent rise of sectarian Hindu cults; a history of social violence since the 1980s, especially targeted at Dalits and Muslims; and not least, the ultra-conservative influence of North American NRIs (of whom Gujarat has the highest proportion, among all Indian states).
The election results are an unmitigated disaster, and a setback to the causes of pluralism, secularism, multiculturalism and democracy. They call for a radical change of strategy by all secular parties. Three major questions arise: Will the results alter the power balances inside the BJP? Will new political equations in the NDA make a difference at the level of government policy? Has the BJP at last found a new ('Modi-fied') formula with which to combat the anti-incumbency factor which plagues it so visibly at the national level?
There is no doubt that Modi's victory, in a campaign he dominated, will raise the weight of the hardline Hindutva lobby within the BJP, itself allied with elements in the VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal. The group around Modi, including party President Venkaiah Naidu and General Secretaries Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, is likely to be greatly strengthened.
But barring one, its leaders have no base and cannot easily take over the party's parliamentary wing, even if they fully capture its organisational apparatus. They could nevertheless make an early bid for power. Its success will depend as much on the Vajpayee leadership's capitulation as on its own protagonists. If Vajpayee decides to fade out, this group will make huge gains. But that is an open question.
Inside the NDA, the BJP's bargaining power has certainly risen. Its alliance partners (the BSP is not one) were irrelevant to its Gujarat victory. It can treat them with even less respect than it used to. But short of a major reshuffle which strengthens Hindutva hardliners in the Cabinet, the NDA remains indispensable to the BJP. It is far from clear if and to what extent the hardline group can compel Vajpayee to accommodate its nominees in the Cabinet. The power struggle has yet to evolve. However, there will certainly be a Rightward shift in NDA policies on Pakistan, Kashmir, terrorism, military expenditure, rearmament and nuclear weapons. This too is a negative development.
The last question, of strategy, is critical for the BJP's prospects in the next Lok Sabha election. The 'Modi Formula,' of instigating large-scale violence in a communally charged situation, is in some ways specific to Gujarat. It assumes a high level of penetration and acceptance of Hindutva in civil society, and a situation marked by a visceral hatred of non-Hindus, communalisation of the administration, and social toleration of extreme brutality against one group of citizens. Highly industrialised Gujarat is also marked by frustration related to factory closures and bankruptcies.
These conditions do not obtain in the states going to the polls next year -- namely, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. True, the Congress faces incumbency disadvantages in some of these. But leveraging them is one thing. Using Hindutva to launch a campaign of killing, and then electorally exploiting it, is quite another. The 'Modi Formula' does not apply in the first set of conditions. It is fraught with high risk in the second too.
Of course, the BJP could try to engineer communal violence in some states, including Uttar Pradesh, where it runs a rickety coalition. That would be playing with fire -- a downright adventurist tactic that could as easily rebound as succeed. In general, there isn't much of a substitute today for normal, 'standard,' politics, of exploiting your opponents' weaknesses, and offering your own attractive or novel programme, identity or USP.
How far Modi can influence the BJP's overall strategy remains to be seen. But he has doubtless emerged as the mascot or torchbearer of a muscular, hardline version of Vajpayee's own Hindu nationalism. Never before has an Indian politician made such huge electoral gains on dead bodies -- literally. For the moment, Vajpayee is tailing Modi and speaking the language of the VHP-RSS. He too has wrongly blamed Muslims for not condemning Godhra enough, and in effect rationalised the ensuing carnage.
Vajpayee terms the Gujarat victory the beginning of a new Vijay Parva ('era of triumph') for the BJP. We must make sure it becomes the 'era of defeat' for Hindutva. Gujarat's results are an offence to democracy -- a collective shame for us all.
The Gujarat Election: The complete coverage