The greatest son of Gujarat described his life as a series of experiments with truth. Mr Narendra Modi, if he chooses to look back on his latest electoral victory, may well think of it as an experiment in violence, and a successful one at that. Under the leadership of Mr Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party has not only won but has also registered increases in the number of seats and in its vote share. If this triumph had been secured on an agenda of development and concrete achievements, there would have been no grounds for complaint or anguish. But Mr Modi contested the election unashamedly on the Hindutva card. He announced the dissolution of the legislative assembly and called for fresh elections in the wake of a pogrom in which he and his government had participated either directly or through inactivity. This violence became the rallying point of his election campaign; his vitriolic speeches were always directed at one particular community. To this, Mr Modi added another kind of poison. He played on the pride of Gujarati Hindus who, in large numbers, had been active agents in the killing, looting and plunder earlier this year and had thus been objects of condemnation. This campaign has brought rich dividends. Majoritarian violence and communalism, Mr Modi might well argue, are good investments in Indian democracy.
The consequences of this are difficult to predict. The experience of contemporary politics in India suggests that power mellows extremism. It is possible — and to be hoped — that this popular verdict and another spell in office will make Mr Modi more respectable and less strident. Having played with fire and won, he may now turn to development and governance. On the other hand, Mr Modi may find it impossible to control the monster he has made and unleashed. The BJP, especially the hardliners within it, having seen that communalism brings electoral rewards, might shift from governance to religion, from Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s agenda to Mr Modi’s agenda. Such a consequence would make this election in Gujarat a landmark event in the making of a different kind of India. The system may appropriate and tame Mr Modi, or the latter might make the system. The future of Indian politics and society hangs on the outcome.
The performance of the Congress makes it evident that it is no longer a force strong enough to combat the evil of communalism. Neither is it in a position to set the national agenda. If the national agenda is development, the Congress, because it is a reluctant reformer, does not claim that it changed the axis of governance in 1992. If the agenda is fighting communalism, the secular component of Congress’s ideology never goes beyond paying lip service to the ideals of Jawaharlal Nehru. Moreover, the Congress wallows in the delusion that it is above coalition politics. The BJP thus often walks not on a level, but on an empty, playing field. For Mr Vajpayee and the Congress, the Gujarat election was a test case. Neither passed the test. Hindutva won over development and secularism.