December 23, 2002

Hindu-Nationalist Victory in Gujarat Spells Trouble for South Asia

The resounding victory of the Hindu-nationalist and rabidly anti-secular, anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in legislative Assembly elections in the western state of Gujarat has dangerous implications not just for India's domestic politics, but for the whole of South Asia. In particular, New Delhi's policies on Kashmir and on relations with Pakistan are likely to harden further, raising the threat of conflict and war in this troubled region.

The bitterly fought elections took place only six months after Gujarat witnessed Independent India's most ghoulish pogrom of a religious minority, in which 2,000 Muslims were butchered, and many more were raped, robbed and made homeless. (The violence followed a localised Hindu-Muslim conflict at Godhra in central Gujarat, in which 58 people, including some BJP supporters, were charred to death in a rail coach.)

The post-Godhra carnage was planned and organised by the BJP, which rules Gujarat, along with its ultra-nationalist Hindu-fundamentalist associates. The party cynically misused the apparatuses of the state, including the police.

The man centrally responsible for the outrage, and India's own Milosevic, Narendra Modi, has now just won the state Assembly election with an unprecedented two-thirds majority of Assembly seats. Modi's dark victory came from exploiting insensate sectarian violence, fomenting anti-Muslim hatred, and a Nazi-style campaign which consciously played on the electorate's insecurities.

Gujarat's is the first major state election which the BJP has won since 1998. It has given its leadership the new hope that it has at last found a formula to overcome its long run of defeat after electoral defeat even if that means killing and maiming innocent citizens.

This cynical calculation is likely to impel the BJP to harden its chauvinist and jingoistic positions, for at least four reasons.

First, the tone and tenor of the BJP's election campaign in Gujarat was extremely harsh. Its language was so inflammatory as to make rabidly racist public remarks, say, in the US and Western Europe, sound almost polite. In his campaign, Modi depended largely on the BJP's extreme-rightwing associates, in particular the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), notorious for its violent methods of mobilisation and goon tactics, and the Rashtriya Sewayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), an all-male secret society-type group established in 1925, which has a history of hero-worshipping Hitler and Mussolini.

The RSS is the BJP's founder, ideological mentor, and organisational gatekeeper.

Modi openly appealed for Hindu votes by maligning all Muslims as fundamentalists and as agents of Miyan Musharraf (a derogatory reference to Pakistan's president) who foment terrorism at Islamabad's behest. He repeatedly raised the emotive issue of the Godhra carnage and vowed revenge to rescue Gujarat's honour and self-esteem. He also promoted himself as a modern-day Fuehrer who alone could give the Gujaratis security.

The sharp polarisation along religious lines brought about by this campaign enabled the BJP to overcome the unpopularity it had courted during its term in power on account of its right-wing social policies, its callousness towards the poor, its mismanagement of the economy, and corruption.

With the BJP's victory in Gujarat, the Modi Formula of fomenting violence and the reaping the harvest of hatred seems to have vindicated the Hindu fundamentalists in the party. Senior BJP leaders have concluded that a rabidly anti-Pakistan stand pays rich dividends, as does the cult of authority, militarism and tub-thumping nationalism. Slogans such as war on terrorism (whose source is always identified with Pakistan) are particularly useful in the BJP's hate-driven politics.

Even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP's allegedly soft face, who often tries to maintain a pretence of moderation, has succumbed to this logic and publicly praised Modi's tactics and his campaigning style. On December 17, he maligned Muslims by falsely claiming that they did not condemn the Godhra killing strongly enough. He thus tailed Narendra Milosevic Modi.

Second, inside the BJP, the group close to Modi has gained greatly in political weight thanks to the Gujarat verdict. This group consists of young Hindu-fascist hardliners, including party president M Venkaiah Naidu and two general secretaries (Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh). Until now, Vajpayee was considered the BJP's sole mass-level campaigner, more or less indispensable to its electioneering. Now, Modi has emerged as a rabble-rousing rival well to Vajpayee's right.

This, and the sheer magnitude of the BJP's electoral success in Gujarat, will change inner-party political equations, weakening the BJP s centre-right parliamentary wing led by Vajpayee, and emboldening the hardliners, who are fascinated by force and coercion, and who favour tough, military solutions to problems such as the popular discontent in Kashmir and crime (related to poverty, jobless growth and extreme and growing disparities), besides terrorism.

The hardliners will lobby against, and even veto, any initiative for dialogue and reconciliation in Jammu and Kashmir. If it does not pursue reconciliation, the Indian government will squander the great opportunities opened up by the relatively fair and credible election in that state held recently.

The ugly jingoistic mood among India's conservatives was reflected in a December 18 court judgment sentencing to death three Kashmiri men accused in a terrorist attack on India's Parliament House in December last year on questionable evidence and in wild celebration of the verdict by right-wing Hindu fascist cadres. The ultra-conservative influence on the Vajpayee government is set to increase, not decrease.

Third, the Gujarat results have greatly strengthened, indeed elated, the BJP's non-parliamentary associates like the VHP, the RSS and the self-avowedly pro-fascist Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. They groups have now mounted the demand that the BJP must move towards transforming India into a Hindu or Hindu-supremacist state.

The BJP had four years ago placed in abeyance its own characteristically Hindu-militant agenda because it would not have otherwise come to power through a coalition with parties which disagree with that agenda. The BJP is under pressure to revive and implement that divisive programme, including imposing a new personal code on the religious minorities and abrogating Kashmir's special status within the Indian Constitution.

The VHP's international general secretary Praveen Togadia has declared Gujarat to be the graveyard of secularism and of the anti-Hindu politics of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, no less. He promises to make India a Hindu state in two years time, through the agency of the BJP.

On December 17, two days after the election results were announced, he vowed to wreak vengeance upon all those who oppose Hindu fundamentalism. He said that the opponents, like cancer patients, live under a death sentence, which would be executed by the people. He also said that in Hindu India, Muslims would become second-class citizens.

The VHP's fascist intolerance and hatred of Pakistan was starkly revealed in 1999 when it demanded Vajpayee should go to Lahore not in a bus (as he did), but in a tank. Togadia now exhorts the BJP to dismember Pakistan.

The BJP is reluctant to condemn such inflammatory hate-speech and to distance itself adequately from the likes of Togadia. It is likely to cave in to pressure from the extreme right to maintain a state of high tension and hostility with Pakistan.

The Vajpayee government has cold-shouldered Pakistan's new civilian government and also annulled a summit meeting of SAARC (South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation), which was to be held in Islamabad in January. Vajpayee did not want to go to Pakistan and shake hands with Musharraf.

The non-BJP members of the 24-party ruling alliance, already weak, have been further marginalised by the Gujarat verdict. They are unlikely to resist mounting Hindu-sectarian pressure from the extreme right.

The fourth factor pertains to electoral politics. Half a dozen Indian states are scheduled to hold Assembly elections next year, including Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and the Delhi territory, where the BJP and Sonia Gandhi's Congress confront each other in bipolar contests. These polls will set the trend for the elections to the national parliament due in late 2004.

The BJP's current national ratings are abysmally low. It cannot hope to return to power if they remain there. It will try the most adventurist, high-risk and grotesque tactics in the coming state elections to gain some popular support and put the Congress on the defensive. It will be tempted to use Modi-style violence to create Hindu-Muslim polarisation, and then exploit that electorally. The centrists in this right-wing party will not be able to resist that temptation.

Thus, the chances of the BJP moderating its political line seem low. There is a high likelihood that it will adopt tough positions on a range of issues and build anti-terrorism into a major plank. Should Pakistani hardliners and fundamentalist militants instigate a major terrorist attack in India, they will play straight into the Hindu right's hands and further strengthen the forces of fascism. Even without their intervention, the South Asian security situation is set to deteriorate.

– Praful Bidwai

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Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.

Archived Columns by Praful Bidwai

Hindu-Nationalist Victory in Gujarat Spells Trouble for South Asia

A North Korea-Pakistan Connection?

De-escalation, But No Thaw Yet

Missile Tests Foment New Rivalries

India In a Trap on Iraq

Portents From the Kashmir Polls

A Mysterious Attack Across the LoC

Hiroshima Under the Shadow of 9/11

Reducing the Nuclear Danger

Did India Cry Wolf to Secure US Intervention?

'Missile Man' as India's President

The Relevance of Détente

Building On The Indo-Pak Thaw

Military Force is No Solution

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