The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have virtually hijacked the Gujarat election from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The RSS workers are out in full strength and the VHP is running its own election campaign parallel to that of the BJP.

The stakes are high for the RSS in Gujarat. It is the last big state that the BJP is defending. Since 1998, when the BJP came into power, 24 state elections have been held. It has lost power in the nine states it ruled either on its own or with allies; lost legislative strength in five others it did not rule and failed to win even a single seat in six other states. Goa was the last election that the BJP won but there too it did not get an absolute majority.

As of now, the BJP is in power in just four states — Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Goa. In all of them the party is ruling through coalition arrangements made before or after elections.

In Gujarat, significantly, the BJP is going to polls without a pre-electoral arrangement with any other political party. This election then is going to test the capacity of the BJP to go it alone and win. If the BJP now loses Gujarat after ruling it for ten years, it would have virtually no independent presence in state governments outside Delhi.

However, Gujarat is also important because Hindutva has been made an election issue there. Disappointed with the performance of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at New Delhi, the sangh parivar (the RSS family of organizations) wants to show that Hindutva can be a major election plank.

The RSS and its sister organizations have been so successful in communalizing the situation in Gujarat, that the Congress is apologetic about its secularism. The sangh parivar has tended to project Sonia Gandhi and the chief election commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, as symbolizing “Christian interests”. This seems to have had the desired impact at least on the Congress, making it defensive.

Sonia Gandhi has chosen to launch her election campaign in the state after visiting the Ambaji temple to prove her and her party’s “Hindu” credentials. This is in keeping with her trying to be a good Hindu. A couple of years ago, she took a dip in the Ganga on the occasion of the Kumbh Mela. Now she is going temple-hopping in Gujarat. If secularism means keeping the religious and political spheres separate, then Sonia’s Congress is setting a bad example of secularism.

The Congress could have sent strong positive signals to the persecuted minority in Gujarat by fielding more Muslim candidates. However, in a state where the Muslim population is about eight per cent, only four Muslim candidates have managed to get the party’s endorsement.

Shankersinh Vaghela, the state unit president of the Congress in Gujarat, has questionable secular credentials. He is a former BJP chief minister of the state. He did not come to the Congress because of any ideological conversion but out of sheer opportunism.

Vaghela and the BJP are the two sides of the same coin. This is being swept under the carpet by not only the Congress but also all those who would somehow like the Congress to win even if it has to dilute its secular principles. Many in the Congress think that the party has staged a coup of sorts by fielding yet another runaway Hindutva votary from the BJP, Yatin Oza, as the Congress candidate against Narendra Modi. The basic flaw in the logic of setting a thief to catch a thief is that with such a guiding principle a time may come when law enforcers are recruited only from the population of thieves and brigands.

The Congress is on the slippery slope of communalism in Gujarat. The heaven would not have fallen if the Congress had fought the Gujarat election by upholding its secular credentials. It might have lost but it would have been a principled defeat. In the long run, it would have provided the energy to fight another day. But now the Congress seems to have handed over its leadership in Gujarat to what in effect is the BJP’s B-team. By its actions the Congress has frittered away the political capital it had earned in the wake of the communal riots by taking a principled stand against communalism. Today, its election campaign does not offer an ideological alternative to the BJP in Gujarat — only different faces.

In embracing ex-BJP leaders with much public glee, the Congress has fallen into a trap set by the BJP. The BJP did not want its votes in Gujarat divided. There was a real prospect of that happening after Shankersinh Vaghela quit the BJP and floated his own All India Rashtriya Janata Party. Had he persisted with his own party, the BJP vote in Gujarat would have been divided. However, Vaghela in the Congress camp means that the BJP votes would remain intact. This suits the BJP. This is one victory the BJP has achieved before the election.

The RSS sees the electoral battle in Gujarat between Hindutva and what it calls the forces of the Christian church, jihad and secularism. It, therefore, does not see the Gujarat election within the framework of forming the next government alone. It is keenly aware that the world — not only the Islamic countries but also the United States of America and the European Union where legislative bodies discussed the Guja- rat riots when they took place — is watching.

An electoral victory in Gujarat would prove to the RSS that the “Hindus” of Gujarat have “avenged” the Godhra incident. It would prove to the RSS what it has always argued for — that “Hindus” will not tolerate attacks on the community. Having created a persecution mentality in the majority community, the RSS would have then encashed it in terms of greater political strength for its political associate, the BJP.

If this experiment succeeds in the limited confines of the Gujarat state (it has already failed once at the national level after the demolition of the Babri Masjid), then it will be a message to the BJP leaders at the Centre — especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee — that they must change their political agenda. The sangh parivar can argue that its version of hardline Hindutva is the vote-catcher rather than the broader, more liberal NDA agenda. This will push politics at the national level decidedly in the direction that the RSS wants.

If defeated in Gujarat, the sangh parivar would rationalize along expected lines — that this was not the failure of Hindutva but of the Central leadership of the BJP. However, there is bound to be restlessness both within the BJP and the RSS. Within the BJP there would be pressure for both restructuring the party leadership and re-orienting the party. The RSS may even be tempted to explore the possibility of floating another political party which it would be able to control more tightly than the BJP, as in the case of the Jammu State Morcha in the Jammu and Kashmir elections.

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