I'm starting to feel like I ran, and lost, in Gujarat. Yes, me. What's more, I lost because guys as far away as Ohio and Germany voted against me. Can it be true? Have I been dreaming I'm a writer when in truth I'm a politician who's just been hammered in the Gujarat polls?
Must be the getting hammered bit, if I go by the weight of mail to me from guys gloating about the BJP victory in Gujarat. The tone all of them sport is as if the loss is mine, entirely and solely mine. The tone also is as if the victory belongs to these writers, also entirely and solely. As if they personally cast votes to personally defeat me. Which must have been a little hard for at least some of them -- unless, that is, Ohio and Germany are newly appropriated districts in Gujarat.
But, of course, the truth is that I remain what I've been for years: an obscure writer. And if you wonder, like I do, why some people feel the need to pretend the Gujarat results amounted to my defeat -- well, I suppose you'll have to ask that question in Ohio.
As for me, I'll applaud the victory of an astute political animal and his just as astute political machinery; of these men who knew precisely what knobs to twist to get votes at a time when they didn't deserve any. So well did they know, in fact, that some of the gloaters and voters announced to me that the BJP win made them "proud to be Hindus."
Not only did the political animal get his votes, not only did he give his ecstatic supporters a spectacular victory; he went beyond that and managed to pump them up about their faith.
A politician does what he must, and superbly -- and suddenly, his supporters are "proud to be Hindus." Yes, a remarkable feat that deserves only applause.
For think, first, of the ground his campaign covered. It was under Narendra Modi and his BJP government that Gujarat suffered three major attacks of terror in 2002: the murders in Godhra, the weeks of killing across the state that followed, the assault on a temple in Gandhinagar. A government that presided over three such outrages in half a year is a government that doesn't give a damn for the security of its citizens and therefore has no business ruling.
In fact, if it had been any other political party ruling Gujarat through this year's terror, the BJP itself would have loudly made just this point. As it did, for example, after riots and bomb blasts in Bombay a decade ago, when the Congress ruled Maharashtra. As it used to with its frequent claim that BJP-ruled states are free of religious riots: a claim that, if it ever held any truth, lies utterly demolished.
So the conundrum the BJP faced in Gujarat was this: given our colossal failure to govern the state, what do we do to attract votes in the election? After all, under BJP rule, there's been terrorism in more than just Gujarat. Under BJP rule in Delhi, we've had terror attacks on an army camp, temples, an assembly, pilgrims, an Indian Airlines jet and our Parliament itself, besides other assaults every day on soldiers and civilians. How do you defend such a pathetic record of ensuring the safety of ordinary Indian lives, and then even ask for votes?
The answer lay in two political masterstrokes we saw in Gujarat.
The first: simply claim, loud and long, to be severe on terror. The BJP knew if it just shouted enough that it was fighting terrorism, the pathetic record would count for nothing. Which is what happened. The party managed to make out that it was actually fighting the very atrocities it, as the ruling party in Gujarat, had presided over. Votes flowed in.
The second: Modi's constant refrain that people had "defamed" Gujarat. Smooth and easy, a bankrupt administration painted criticism of its own failures as a massive conspiracy to denigrate 55 million people. (Which equation of a failed government to an entire state, if anything, was the real defamation of Gujarat). Therefore, the refrain went, voting for this bankrupt administration, instead of booting it out as it deserved, was a matter of Gujarati pride. The appeal to this mystical "pride" worked as it had to, as Modi knew it would. Votes flowed in again.
Think next of the reactions we have seen to this victory. Major BJP figures -- LK Advani, Arun Jaitley and Modi himself -- hailed it as a victory for "nationalism." "Yeh rashtravad ki jeet hai," Smita Gupta quotes them saying "repeatedly" in response to the results (The Times of India, December 17).
Murderers wander Gujarat unpunished, but "nationalism" has won.
If you wonder what sort of nationalism allows killers to roam free, you may find yourself remembering other events from our history: The massacre of 3,000 Indians in Delhi, 1984; the killing of over 1,000 Indians in Bombay a decade ago; the killing and looting that drove Pandits out of Kashmir after 1989. In each case, criminals roam free to this day.
But more than that, each case was followed by elections in which tainted parties won, as has just happened in Gujarat: the Congress in Delhi, the Sena/BJP in Maharashtra; the National Conference in Kashmir. Were those also "victories for nationalism"? Would 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee their homes, taking just one of these three examples, describe any election in Kashmir as a "victory for nationalism"? Please ask them.
What this was, really, was one more chapter in a lesson political parties are learning to expert levels: drive people to hatred and violence, and the polarisation you get gives you massive election victories. They call this "nationalism."
There was another reaction too, and this from our respected Prime Minister Vajpayee. On December 17, he told his partymen that Muslims had not condemned the Godhra massacre "enough" ("Jitna Godhra kand ke baad musalman samaj se virodh hona chahiye, nahin hua", The Times of India quoted him saying, December 18), and "even today, there is no repentance that we [the Muslims] committed a mistake" (rediff.com, December 17).
Leave aside the little fact that, as The Times itself commented, 'many Muslim organisations and personalities had immediately issued statements strongly condemning Godhra, and these were carried prominently in the press.' Leave aside, too, the deliberate vagueness of that 'enough;' because whatever the condemnation, respectable men can always say it wasn't 'enough.' Digest instead what our honorable PM is really saying: that all 120 million Muslims in India are responsible for what 2,000 depraved Muslims did in Godhra.
When caste murders happen in Bihar, or when 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered in Delhi, or even when a Harshad Mehta perpetrates enormous stock market thefts, we don't hear our honorable PM saying Hindus didn't condemn those crimes 'enough.' You will agree that the thought itself is obscene, that you can hold all Hindus responsible for the crimes of a few. (Must all Hindus 'repent' for 'committing a mistake' in the stock scam?) Yet our respected PM makes precisely this obscene implication about Muslims.
Who is the 'we' who 'committed a mistake,' dear PM? Were all 120 million Indian Muslims present in Godhra on February 27, committing 'the mistake'? How is my friend Altaf who runs the corner convenience store more responsible for the Godhra murders -- to the extent that you say he is not "repentant" for his "mistake" -- than you? Or Narendra Modi? Or me?
Of course, we do know why Vajpayee said what he did: because he and his party know as well as anyone the value of polarising the electorate, of harvesting votes in fields of hatred.
Which brings me, finally, to his party's Hindutva. What happened in Gujarat, we are told, was a historic victory for Hindutva, and the BJP's brand of it. When I hear talk like this, I can only wonder: what precisely is this Hindutva? In Gujarat, it amounted to these things: a clever politician and his political ways. A claim to be tough on terror which had no connection to the reality of months of terror. Appeals to some ephemeral 'pride.' Mention of 'nationalism' that does not venture beyond just mention. A suave attribution of guilt to an entire community for a horrible crime, thus justifying other horrible crimes committed against them. (You guys in Germany, did I miss anything?)
This is Hindutva? But wait a minute, this is stuff we've lived with for decades, carried out to varying degrees of finesse by Indiras and Rajivs in the Congress party. Their very emptiness, their failure at anything you might call governance, is the reason a nation turned away from the Congress and to the BJP. And now we know, if we didn't earlier: the BJP is a mere Congress clone.
Yes, this is what the Gujarat result amounts to: a thunderous announcement that the BJP is no different, does not aspire to be different, from the Congress.
And for that reason, this victory leaves me neither dejected nor proud. Once the euphoria settles, even people in Gujarat will see Modi and his party for the hollow rhetoric-mongers they are, the failures at running a government they are, the extra-smooth Congress-clones they are. Because every emphatic electoral victory has led to such disillusionment. And so from that grows opportunity that we will all have to seize some day -- to get these two parties to concentrate not on hate and emptiness, but on ordinary governance.
As for Hindutva, its vendors could do much worse than visit the lady in whose house I have spent the last several Ganesh Chaturthis. Every time, I feel a tingling in my spine as I watch her and her jaunty elephant-headed idol. It's from her quiet yet clear-eyed devotion, from her deep understanding of the spirit of her culture and faith, that I know she gets her confidence, compassion, strength and humanity. That's why I know -- without her having to write it at the bottom of letters or shout it from her balcony or feel it after a politician wins or see only ogres across religious lines -- that she is proud to belong to a great and wise tradition. Proud to be Hindu.