|SWEET & SOUR: BJP chief Venkaiah Naidu offers sweets to Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his residence. (PTI)
It was a victory march all the way. Gujarat gave Narendra Modi’s party a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, the best ever by any party since the clean sweep by the Congress in 1985.
But the scale of the triumph opened new challenges for virtually all key players in the state and even beyond its borders. Gujarat may account for as little as five per cent of the population of the country, but by holding on to its bastion the BJP put all old political equations under a question mark.
The enormity of the win needs emphasis. This is the first time Vajpayee’s party has ever won a third straight term in any state. It is also a first in another more significant sense. Not since the Ram temple was the spearhead of its win in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 has Hindutva figured quite so prominently in any election.
No doubt it gained from the post-Godhra, post-riot polarisation, especially in central and north Gujarat. In the former region, it made major gains that more than offset the slight slide in Saurashtra. But the key was surely in the telling statistic that the party won 53 of the 65 seats where the violence was at its worst.
There are two directions the party can now go in. Modi took on a conciliatory tone, speaking of the rights of all five crore Gujaratis. But his potshots at “pseudo-secularists” showed him still in campaign mode. Whether he can at all apply a healing touch is the question.
Praveen Togadia compared the victory to Shivaji’s capture of Raigadh fort and called for a Hindu rashtra in two years. There is little doubt the results will provide a shot in the arm for the VHP and its allies. Issues like the Ram temple; cow slaughter and conversions will be taken up at a wider level. Vajpayee and his ministers will feel the heat.
All eyes will be on the NDA in New Delhi. During the campaign, the Prime Minister advised all to cast bitterness aside once the elections were over and done with. The test of such sage advice is now upon his party.
But there will be a temptation to play a Modi-like card in the five Hindi belt Assembly elections due in 2003. Nothing succeeds like success. Terrorism is not even an issue like the Ram temple that can become hostage to caste equations or be limited to one state. The difference, of course, is a crucial one: in all but one of these states, Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is in the Opposition. This will limit its options but also give room to bring pressure to bear on the state-level Congress ministries.
The Congress was left staring defeat in the face. Gujarat now joins a list of seven other states where the once all-powerful party has lost more than one Assembly election in a row. The talk of a steady march back to power via the state capitals now looks premature. The party has to ask afresh who it stands for and what its core message should be.
Congress was an also-ran all along. It was never quite able to steal the religious appeal of its rival party. Nor was it able to cash in on the discontent arising out of the mundane issue of governance. The gains in its vote bank due to Vaghela were insufficient to turn the tide. There was no effective counter to the way in which the ruling party’s mascot and chief campaigner reduced all issues to one word: Godhra. In addition to the polarisation, it also helped the BJP to play up divisions among the Congress’ traditional voters like the adivasis and Dalits.
Sonia Gandhi’s well-choreographed appearances found her more comfortable on the trail than ever before. But her judgment and choices will come under question, even if not openly. The soft saffron line won few new adherents, while it made the party fall between two stools.
There is still room for manoeuvre. Gujarat, like neighbouring Maharashtra, is unusual for the way in which Hindutva can be allied to regional cultural appeal. The idea of Gujarati asmita (pride) proved invaluable to Modi. It has no real counterpart in the Hindi-speaking north.
The Congress would also see a sliver of hope in the way seasoned anti-Congress campaigners came out on its side. Ram Vilas Paswan, the two Left parties and Laloo Prasad Yadav were on the campaign trail. This may be the first faint sign of a fresh realignment of anti-BJP forces across the country.
That still cannot get rid of a home truth in the results. Modi successfully posed the issue of security in a particular manner that appealed to a large cross-section of voters. He equated terrorism with personal security and national defence. And his idiom and, even more so, of his allies in the Sangh parivar has consolidated a cross-caste vote bank. Governance, the economy and jobs took the backseat. Emotion and the politics of panic held sway.
Modi’s is an unapologetic and assertive brand of Hindutva. Having won at the hustings, it will pose a challenge for the key figures within the ruling party. They can tame the tiger or dismount it.