Barely two days before polling, Jagmohan visited one of the Muslim clusters in the Minto Road assembly segment of the constituency. The mohalla had some 4,500 voters, the majority of whom were traditional Congress voters. In 1999, Jagmohan, as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, had picked up some 250 votes from the locality. Having undertaken some major urban improvement projects in the area, the minister was hopeful that this time his vote-share in the locality would improve significantly. His hopes rose when he was greeted by cheering residents and showered with rose petals during his padayatra through the mohalla.
On May 13, the electronic voting machines contained many surprises. The BJP lost the election and Jagmohan was unseated in New Delhi. The locality where he was boisterously feted barely a week ago also voted resoundingly for his Congress opponent. Jagmohan’s tally there was a measly 26 votes!
Since every election necessitates a fall guy from the ranks of the vanquished, the media has been quick to identify the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, as the reason why the National Democratic Alliance converted victory into defeat. It is not merely the BJP’s relatively poor showing in Gujarat — the party won 14 of the 26 seats from the state — that is held up against Modi. Many NDA candidates, particularly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, have argued that it was the Gujarat riots of 2002 that nurtured a fierce Muslim backlash and contributed to their defeats. Even BJP candidates have suggested that it was a major tactical mistake to allow Modi to campaign outside Gujarat since his presence revived memories of the riots and fostered Muslim consolidation against the NDA. With the benefit of hindsight, it has been argued by some pundits that Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost his moral authority the day he bowed to party pressure and acquiesced in Modi's continuation as chief minister.
That the Gujarat riots played a significant role in the defeat of the NDA has become conventional wisdom in some circles. However, before Modi is made the unanimous fall guy for the defeat, it may be prudent to examine the theory fully.
For a start, it has to be said that the Gujarat riots were never a visible campaign theme of either the BJP or its opponents. The BJP, by and large, shied away from mentioning it at all, while the anti-NDA parties used it surreptitiously. When questioned by the media, senior BJP leaders described the Gujarat riots as an “aberration” and chose to emphasize the even-handedness of their record of governance. Following the endorsement of the party by Muslim notables such as Arif Mohammed Khan (who contested as a BJP candidate), M.J. Akbar, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan and the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the belief in the NDA was that a significant minority of Muslims would either vote for it or not make its defeat their overriding priority. There was also a conviction that Vajpayee’s peace initiative with Pakistan would earn the NDA enormous Muslim goodwill.
On the strength of these assumptions, the BJP did not contest the 2004 election on a Hindu platform. Ayodhya featured only incidentally in the campaign, and even when it was raised, the message was that the dispute would be resolved by negotiations involving both Hindus and Muslims. During his Bharat Uday Yatra, L.K. Advani offered prayers at the dargah in Ajmer and speaking in Kishanganj, Vajpayee promised two lakh jobs for Urdu teachers. The BJP also telecast a few uncharacteristic publicity films specifically aimed at Muslims.
There was always a section of the BJP that viewed these initiatives with deep scepticism. They were displeased with Advani’s squeamishness over the Gujarat riots and his constant invocation of the peace-talks with Pakistan. According to them, the Gujarat riots issue had been conclusively settled by the unequivocal verdict of the Gujarat assembly polls of 2002, and that no further discussion was warranted.
However, this section was silenced by the argument that recourse to militant Hindu nationalism was unnecessary because it would jeopardize the fragmentation of Muslim votes — a process that would tacitly help the BJP.
In retrospect, although the reality did not correspond to the high expectations, it was not as grim as analysts make it out to be. According to the exhaustive exit-poll data collected by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the NDA’s vote-share among Muslims fell from 14 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent in 2004. Considering that the BJP-led alliance secured as little as three per cent of the Muslim vote in 1991 and 1996, and only five per cent in 1998, even this 11 per cent vote seems respectable. In Karnataka, for example, the BJP polled 21 per cent of the Muslim vote. It even got a share of the Christian vote, which explains its success in Bangalore North. In the Barmer constituency of Rajasthan, Muslim support enabled the BJP candidate, Manvendra Singh, to notch up a majority of 2.7 lakhs in a seat the party has never ever won. In Andhra Pradesh too, despite the overall anti-incumbency, the NDA candidates secured 34 per cent of the Muslim vote.
However, the aggregate statistics do mask some of the more marked failures of the NDA attempt to court Muslims. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, states where the NDA tried its utmost to sell the Vajpayee image against the countervailing pulls of caste and community, the Muslim vote for the NDA was eight per cent and three per cent respectively. In Maharashtra too, the BJP-Shiv Sena lost in all the 56 assembly segments where Muslims are in a substantial minority. A similar story was repeated in West Bengal, where the gainers were either the Congress or the Left Front.
Yet, the issue of low Muslim support should not be exaggerated. The BJP, in particular, has never banked on Muslim votes for its success. Where Muslim votes have accrued to the party, it has been regarded as either an achievement of the individual candidate or a lucky bonus. The bouts of agonizing this time is purely a result of the hopes pinned on a development-oriented, non-emotional campaign that shied away from Hindu consolidation. Yet, the undeniable fact is that the NDA lost support among all communities and classes, including the middle classes that have been loyal to the BJP since 1991. The fall in Muslim votes is not disproportionate to the fall in NDA support among, say, Brahmins, Thakurs or even the very poor. Considering that Muslims are among the most economically disadvantaged sections, there is no extra evidence to suggest that the insecurity bred by the Gujarat riots rather than anti-incumbency shaped the final verdict.
Modi may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to hold him responsible for the national failure of the BJP is a motivated exaggeration. By that logic, the only real chance of the NDA regaining power lay in a shrill, emotional campaign of the type Modi mounted in Gujarat in 2002. Those who have awarded Muslim voters the first prize in the war against the NDA are actually itching for a return to a communal polarization that was absent from Election 2004.