On September 30, 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru began the most important election campaign of modern history. I use these words advisedly. These were, after all, to be the first general elections in free India. A desperately poor, sharply divided and mostly illiterate nation of 300 million had chosen to elect its leaders through universal adult franchise. Some intelligent observers thought this to be sheer madness. A respected Madras editor called it “the biggest gamble in history”. A brilliant British scholar and former Indian civil service official wrote of how “a future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people”.
Nehru chose to inaugurate his, and the Congress’s, campaign in the Punjab, lately the scene of bitter violence between Hindus and Muslims. In the first election speech he made, he “condemned the communal bodies which in the name of Hindu and Sikh culture were spreading the virus of communalism as the Muslim League once did”. These “sinister communal elements”, he said, would, if they came to power, “bring ruin and death to the country”. He committed himself, his party and his government to “an all-out war against communalism”.
Nehru’s campaign, however, was not simply against communalism. It also had a strongly positive content, this articulated in different speeches he delivered that winter on his countrywide election tour. His Congress party, said Nehru, was better than the opposition because it could provide a stable government, because it would vigorously pursue economic development, and because it would promote a foreign policy based on peace with honour.
I was reminded of Nehru’s campaign when considering recent reports on the state of Gujarat. There, as in the India of 1951-2, an electoral battle is being fought against the backdrop of recent, and horrific, communal violence. Yet how different has been the attitude taken this time by the political formation in power. Their rhetoric has been poisonous from the start. Praveen Togadia began by suggesting that the leader of the opposition was a canine from Italy. Narendra Modi then insinuated that the Muslims of India, when not beholden to mian Musharraf, live by the slogan, “Hum panch, humare pachees”. Both Modi and Togadia have made petty personal attacks on a high constitutional authority, the chief election commissioner, simply on account of his belonging to a religion different from theirs.
As the campaign has proceeded, the temper has risen, and the rhetoric has become uglier. Narendra Modi, in one speech, said the Godhra incident happened because some Hindus were not allowed to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Then he asked his audience — if they cannot chant “Jai Shri Ram” in India, where will they be allowed to say this — in Italy' Even this crudity was surpassed when, on his next stop, he challenged the leader of the opposition to a public debate in “any language of her choice — Gujarati, Hindi, English or Italian”.
Turn now to the recent antics of Praveen Togadia, the Tweedledum to Modi’s Tweedledee. His Vishwa Hindu Parishad decided to march from Godhra to Akshardham, both sites of violence by extremist non-Hindus. (The violence by extremist Hindus, whose impact and death toll have greatly exceeded that of those other two incidents, is of course to Togadia a matter of pride, not shame.)
The yatra’s intentions were described by Togadia as “Godhra na jawab, aaje Gandhinagar, kaale Dilli ane pacchi Islamabad” (Godhra will be answered by our taking Gandhinagar today, Delhi tomorrow and Islamabad thereafter). The yatra’s organizers also pledged to establish a Hindu rashtra by “dissolving Pakistan”. Fortunately, the Election Commission prohibited the march. Togadia and company first threatened to lay down their lives rather than succumb to this prohibition, but in the event their nerve failed them and they meekly succumbed to a few hours of token arrest.
The rhetoric of Modi and Togadia has called for some muted criticism by their family mates in Delhi. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has asked that election campaigns focus on issues of governance instead of stoking social conflicts. His call has been endorsed by his deputy, Lal Krishna Advani. One wonders how seriously to take these words of caution. Are they another manifestation of the characteristic two-facedness of the sangh parivar, always so reasonable in one voice, and yet so fanatical in another'
Whether or not Vajpayee meant what he said, there is no question that he has laid his finger on a central dilemma of electoral politics in India. This is as follows: when appealing for votes, should parties and politicians invoke good governance and economic prosperity, or must they instead seek to build upon primordial loyalties of caste or religion or language' Both tactics have been tried by Indian parties and politicians, and both have, on occasion, worked.
Until the mid-Seventies, the Congress generally fought elections on the planks of national identity, social stability and economic security. The communists and socialists, in turn, advertised the inability of the Congress to bring about these ends, particularly the last. Trust us, they told the poor of India, we articulate your interests much better than the Congress ever has.
The claims of religion were advanced in the British period by parties such as the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. Then, in 1952, came the Jana Sangh, precursor of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In this or that incarnation, the Jana Sangh has retained a strong presence in northern and western India. In the 50 years of its existence, it has always appealed to the interests of the “Hindu majority”, although that appeal has sometimes been shrill and aggressive, at other times even-tempered and apparently reasonable.
The claims of religious identity must be distinguished from those based on language and region. At various times in our history, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, and the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh have fought and won state elections on the basis of regional or linguistic “pride”. They have presumed to stand for the region or language against an arrogant and insensitive Centre. Then there is the Akali Dal, in and out of power in the Punjab over the last 30 years and a party which somehow combines the interests of religion (the Sikh), region (the Punjab), and language (Punjabi, in the Gurmukhi script).
The third kind of political formation that invokes sectional rather than universal claims is based on caste. Consider here the various Dalit-based parties, which have been an enduring part of our political landscape, from Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation down to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Universal in nomenclature but sadly sectarian in outlook are the parties associated with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Neither has ever offered the electorate constructive policy options in the spheres of governance and economic reform. Rather, they merely seek to assure the backward classes and minorities that they represent their interests more reliably than do rival parties.
Broadly speaking then, there are two alternative electoral strategies open to Indian parties and politicians. They can either claim to promote social peace and economic prosperity, or to stand for the interests of a particular caste, religion or region. One can either offer a platform of hope — VOTE FOR ME, IF YOU WANT SAFETY ON THE STREETS OR MONEY IN YOUR POCKET! — or stoke feelings of fear and insecurity— VOTE FOR ME, YOU DALITS/HINDUS, IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SWAMPED OR SUPPRESSED BY SUVARNAS/MUSLIMS! Jawaharlal Nehru, and a few politicians who came after him, urged the public to hope, whereas Narendra Modi, and many politicians who came before him, have instead asked it to fear and suspect.