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BY THE TAIL OF THE HOLY COW

The legislative assembly election in Madhya Pradesh is only eight months away, and Digvijay Singh, the chief minister of the state, seems nervous. He has started behaving in an uncharacteristic manner. Digvijay Singh has taken the demand for a total ban on cow slaughter to a feverish pitch. He has been propagating the benefits of drinking cow urine regularly. He is credited with having claimed that if a cow-horn is filled with dung, buried on a specific date and then dug out on a full moon night, then the dung is imbued with magical powers — it is sufficient to fertilize an entire acre of farm-land!

The chief minister has taken up several other issues that project him as a champion of Hindu causes. He has demanded, for example, that a statue of the goddess of learning, Saraswati, be brought back from Britain. He is trying to acquire land for religious purposes adjacent to the famous Mahakaal temple in Ujjain and wants the present occupants (belonging to the Rashtriya Swa-yamsevak Sangh family of Hindu organizations) to surrender it to the government. He let the issue of worship at Bhojshala, which has both a temple and a mosque within it, reach a feverish pitch and then recommended that Hindus be allowed to pray there every Tuesday because Muslims also offer prayers there every Friday.

Under normal circumstances, Digvijay Singh’s friends would be well advised to take him to the nearest shrink. But Digvijay Singh is far from flipping his lid. He has clearly thought through what he is doing.

On the face of it, Digvijay Singh’s government has much to be proud of. He has given fairly good governance. His social sector reforms have been innovative. He has sought to empower local bodies in the avowed belief that through decentralization, even the most formidable problems in a demo- cracy can be converted into smaller, ma- nageable ones. Village communities in Madhya Pradesh not only manage their forests, they also harvest water and monitor the functioning of primary health centres. They also have the right to recall their representatives to the local bodies.

The state’s education guarantee scheme allows schools to be managed by the people jointly with the state. Because of its innovative adult literacy progra- mme, the state recorded a 20 per cent rise in literacy in the 2001 census over the previous decade.

Madhya Pradesh under Digvijay Singh also adopted the historic Bhopal declaration for the social and economic uplift of the oppressed sections of society (Dalits). And although the measures suggested for doing so remain problematic, the state has at least put the issue on its agenda of governance.

Why after such achievements is the Congress not showcasing Madhya Pradesh and going the Hindutva way' One interpretation could be that after the debacle of Gujarat, the party is thoroughly demoralized. It desperately needs a victory in the Hindi heartland and has come to the conclusion that unless it somehow recaptures the Hindu vote, it could be routed. To add to its woes, there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment facing its chief minister, who has been at the helm for nearly 10 years.

In Madhya Pradesh, the percentage of Muslims in the total population is in single digits. The Muslims are largely limited to the urban pockets which have traditionally been the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stronghold. This is notwithstan-ding the fact that the Congress won from the urban areas in the last assembly election. At that time, the party had benefited from the public anger against a massive rise in the price of onions and the Central government’s obduracy in not allowing imports. The Congress is now fearful of the urban voters reverting back to the BJP.

The Congress, however, did not do well in the rural constituencies in the last assembly elections. This was despite all the claims of progress made in the social sector. It could well be that these much-touted achievements were either largely hype or never of such significance as to get votes. Nobody would know this but Digvijay Singh. He may have drawn the cynical conclusion that performance of a government does not win elections — if it did, how would Lal- oo Yadav continue his winning streak in Bihar or the Left Front in West Bengal'

Meanwhile, the physical infrastructure in the state — roads and power being the two prime examples — has crumbled. Therefore, Digvijay Singh and his party could be telling themselves that it might be good tactics to climb on to the Hindutva platform to garner the rural vote on emotive religious issues.

Perhaps the chief minister’s calculation is that Dalit voters are already with him as he has assiduously cultivated them. He now needs to target the upper-caste Hindus. If he takes up Hindutva issues, then he can hope to divide Hindutva forces in the state. Whether they opp- ose him or support him — either way he can only gain from a divided Hindutva family.

There can be no doubt about Digvijay Singh’s basic intention of performing a hat-trick in Madhya Pradesh. However, jumping on to the Hindutva platform may not help him. Trying to take the battle to the BJP’s home ground may put him in the position of the Indian cricket team in New Zealand — losing the game and blaming the pitch.

Congressmen before him had also tried to appease the Hindu voters. Jawaharlal Nehru might have settled the issue against soft-Hindutva and in favour of secularism by forcing Purshottamdas Tandon out of the party in 1952. But his successors have off and on tried to make communal overtures and to take soft-Hindutva on board. Indira Gandhi, in the days before her assassination, had started making conciliatory communal noises towards Hindus and propping up the Virat Hindu Sammelan. Rajiv Gandhi, under the influence of Arun Nehru (who has since shown his true colours and joined the BJP), helped open the locks at Ayodhya; later Congressmen like Buta Singh made the Congress a party to the shilanyas at Ayodhya and P.V. Narasimha Rao as prime minister, thought nothing of flying sadhus in government aircraft to Delhi and touching their feet.

Indira Gandhi did not live to see the electoral impact of her trying to take the communal path. But neither in 1989 nor in 1996 did communal overtures help the Congress electorally. It was the BJP which gained and came to power. Yet there is no dearth of Congressmen who argue that if frogs are winning elections then they must also start croaking.

Digvijay Singh could have been a contender, he could have had class. But instead he has chosen to be a pretender — trying to draw the BJP into competitive communalism. This is not a game pretenders can win. The Hindutva forces are the crusaders of fundamentalism and their natural constituency recognizes them as such.

A Congress victory in Madhya Pradesh, if it were to be achieved through a communal compromise, would not be worth it. The Congress would have demoralized its natural constituency across the country by projecting itself as a “lesser evil” than the BJP. Secular society, rationalists and the minorities would be in political retr- eat. And the political discourse in India would have shifted further to the right.

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