As political India debates whether the Bharatiya Janata Party can replicate the Modi 'formula' -- of using violence to create communal polarisation and win votes -- in the states that soon go for assembly elections, it becomes relevant to ask if the BJP's opponents too will repeat the strategies they employed in Gujarat.
An analysis of the final detailed election results shows that the BJP gained as much from 'negative' factors, or its opponents' mistakes, as it did from a 'positive' one, namely, its own communal appeal. While the second factor greatly influenced electoral choices in Gujarat's central and northern regions, which were worst affected by violence, the effects of the second were far more widespread.
It turns out that the BJP failed to cross the halfway mark, its votes totaling 10.13 million or 49.79 percent of those polled -- from an electorate of 32.9 million. Just 31 percent of the electors voted for it. The 'secular' parties bagged 9.44 million votes, totaling the ballots polled by the Congress, NCP, Congress 'rebels,' CPI, CPI-M, Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal-United. In addition to the 53 seats the Congress and JD-U won, there were as many as 40 other constituencies in which secular candidates would have won had they not divided the anti-BJP vote between themselves.
Of course, Gujarat's true shame is that the BJP's vote rose by six percentage points -- despite the butchery of 2,000 Indian citizens and the rule of lynch law, on top of its abysmal governance. But its victory was less sweeping that it first seemed.
Dividing votes was not the only mistake the secular parties made. The Congress' two other great errors lay in not fully mobilising the party's organisational machine, and more grave, in not taking the BJP head-on on the central issues of Hindutva, 'terrorism' and national 'security.'
Thus, the Congress allowed its factions led by Messrs Shankersinh Vaghela, Madhavsinh Solanki, Amarsinh Chaudhary and Urmila Patel to sabotage 'rival' candidates. The party controls 80 per cent of Gujarat's municipalities and 70 per cent of village panchayats. But it didn't bring their cadres into the campaign. It failed to coordinate its work with anti-communal NGOs. Instead of playing a hands-on role, Ms Sonia Gandhi left matters to the mediocre leadership of Mr Kamal Nath and Mr Vaghela, including candidate selection and campaign slogans.
The Congress' fatal error was that it didn't ideologically demarcate itself from the BJP nor challenged the BJP's equation of Hindutva with nationalism. Mr Modi's rantings about 'Miyan Musharraf,' and his ludicrous charges about Indian Muslims' 'treachery' and collusion with Pakistan, went uncontested. Mr Vaghela, who stressed that he has 'no ideological differences with the RSS,' had no answer to this. Nor did the Congress refer to the communal pogrom. It left the field open to the BJP's toxic campaign on Godhra.
Logically, the Congress should have strongly attacked the BJP's demonisation of Indian Muslims as Pakistan's Fifth Column. The Indian Muslims' total rejection of jihad is remarkable and exemplary, indeed unique. As former Research & Analysis Wing official B Raman says, 'not a single Indian Muslim -- not even from J&K' -- ever joined Afghanistan's mujahideen in the 1980s, bin Laden's International Islamic Front in the 1990s, or Al Qaeda/Taliban more recently. No Muslim from the rest of India has joined Kashmir's militant Islamicists. The amazing restraint and patriotic spirit shown by Indian Muslims is probably unmatched anywhere else.
Yet, the BJP's campaign all but equated Hindutva with nationalism and claimed a special, 'natural,' status for RSS-style 'patriotism.' The Congress should have ruthlessly exposed Hindutva as divisive, extremist, deeply ill-liberal and incompatible with India's composite culture, its pluralism, and the Constitutional values of democracy, secularism and universal citizenship. It should have pointed out that the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha played no role in the freedom movement -- their main enemy being Muslims, not colonialism.
It is the Hindutva ideologues who founded the Two-Nation Theory. The Congress left the BJP's poisonous propaganda uncontested. Yet, it is precisely this national-chauvinist platform that the Congress, the principal Opposition party, will have to oppose in the forthcoming elections if it is to mount a spirited ideological challenge to the BJP.
BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu has persuaded himself that the BJP's success in Gujarat was premised as much on the plank of opposing 'terrorism' as upon communal violence: 'As the Gujarat election process peaked, national perceptions crystallised on the central issues of terrorism and extremism... Our adversaries were rightly recognised as willing to compromise on national interests... The people had been watching the country being bled by terrorists... The Gujarat elections offered an opportunity to effectively articulate their concerns on these larger issues...' This they did by voting for the BJP, feels Mr Naidu.
This is the key to confronting the BJP in states like Himachal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland and Delhi -- apart from Manipur and Meghalaya -- where elections are due in coming months. The BJP will go to these polls on 'national-security-is-in-danger-from-terrorism' platform. But it is here that the BJP is most vulnerable. For, no party has endangered 'national security' as badly, as severely, as the BJP, by dividing the nation and severing it from the very people who constitute it. And none has tried to drive such a wedge between Hindus and others, and among the Hindus themselves.
Today, the BJP and the NDA government pursue this divisive policy by heightening the hostility with Pakistan, adding a viciously communal angle to it. The stratagem is based on identifying Pakistan as the external manifestation of the 'threat from within' (read, Muslims). That's why the government has created more and more obstacles to normalising relations with Pakistan and further restricted visas.
This mean-spirited move will reduce the number of cities Pakistani nationals can visit from 12 to only three. During 2002, New Delhi granted visas to less than 200 Pakistani nationals (normal figure, 4,000 to 5,000), even refusing entry to Track-II participants and many delegates invited to social science seminars and NGO conferences. The government also wantonly sabotaged the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Islamabad.
The secular parties, especially the Congress, must frontally contest the BJP's claim to fighting terrorism effectively with its so-called 'pro-active' policy. For all its militant rhetoric and tub-thumping, the BJP-NDA's strategy to prevent, counter and contain terrorism has proved bankrupt. Not only was India bled to the extent of Rs 10,000 crores -- four times the central health budget -- during the pointless 10-month-long mobilisation of 700,000 troops in a caricature of Rambo-style militarism. In fact, some of the worst terrorist attacks (Akshardham and Raghunath temple episodes) have taken place during the NDA's rule. As Mr Raman says, this government has 'trivialised counter-terrorism.'
The best strategy to counter Hindutva's 'national security' rhetoric is to counterpose people's security to it. This means focusing centrally on the people's minimum needs, and enhancing food security, income security, security of employment, gender security and, personal security. This approach will also involve measures to reduce tension with Pakistan by engaging it in a dialogue and mounting diplomatic pressure on it. It will be even more vital to start an internal dialogue in Kashmir to begin the healing of wounds.
The Congress must not be apologetic about this alternative security perspective. It should know that the BJP lost heavily in the Jammu region in the last assembly election precisely because its militant 'anti-terrorism' rhetoric proved hollow. The electorate saw through its boasts and concluded that the BJP's policies had made Jammu more, not less, insecure. The Punjab militancy ended in the mid-1990s -- not through the rhetoric of war, or 'tough' and draconian measures against pro-Khalistan fanatics. It's only when the terrorists alienated the people through extortion and violence, and when popular support for their cause completely dried up, that Pakistan could no longer fish in Punjab's troubled waters.
The Congress must confront the BJP on these issues. It must stress human security, a people-centred agenda, and show that it has a healthy, wholesome conception of advancing the interests of all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion or ethnicity. Admittedly, this won't be easy for the Congress, which is timid and confused, and 'naturally' tends to follow a soft-Hindutva approach and fudge issues, rather than deal with them squarely.
To rise to the occasion, the Congress will need external help, especially new intellectual and ideological-political inputs. It must stop pretending, a la Pranab Mukherjee, that it has no 'real allies' except the NCP and Trinamool. It should begin a series of discussions with committed anti-communal forces: Left-liberal political leaders, academics, intellectuals and anti-communal activists, and evolve collective strategies with them to beat back the Hindutva challenge. Re-secularising India is not any one party's agenda.
Politically unhinging the BJP and denying it legitimacy and electoral success is an imperative for all secular parties and social movements. The coming year will witness a tough battle for the soul of Indian nationhood. The Congress must not lose it by default -- as it did in Gujarat.