The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
What is the true historical significance of the elections in Gujarat' This is a question only history can answer. If Narendra Modi’s victory turns out to be a temporary reprieve for the worst elements in the sangh parivar, we might look upon this election and the events that led up to it as simply a passing phase in Indian politics, the product of a temporary anxiety, which will soon be overcome by the wheeling and dealing of normal politics. On the other hand, if Gujarat signals a trend, a long continuing rightward shift in Indian politics, which has become more enduring with each election, a greater acceptability of a political leadership which no decent society ought to tolerate, then this election will be classed as amongst those which changed India forever. In accepting Modi and all that he stands for, we will have decided to become a different kind of nation.
While the psephology of this election is complicated and reveals many things of local political interest, Modi’s victory is significant. It is not a small achievement in a country where for any party to win two successive state elections is a rare feat. The fact that Modi was given an unprecedented free hand suggests that the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership wanted this election to be a genuine test of whether a hardline strategy would work.
This election also brutally exposes one fact we have known for a long time: the Congress is not a party any more. It has no clear identity in terms of principles, it has an organization which only opportunistically gets together just before elections, it has no defining leadership at the Centre. In some states it has more of a governing presence than it does in Gujarat, but it is still difficult to shake off the impression that it has no long-term strategy and goals. It is hoping that simply a politics of disaffection will get it through. It has a long way to go in being a viable alternative.
If anything, Gujarat shows the extent to which a long-term penetration of civil society is extremely important for creating a political base. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the sangh parivar have done this more successfully in recent times than almost any other rival ideological formation. They have keenly nurtured a sense of Hindu “hurt”, slowly and imperceptibly transforming a religion of enormous vitality and depth into a sullen, resentful ideology. They have, by the sheer volume of noise they generate, made it difficult for anyone else to set the agenda.
There is no alternative axis of political mobilization that is effective. While most other political parties are more or less content with their current social base, the BJP is crafting a broad constituency based on a politics of anxiety. This is a constituency that will endure even in the face of temporary electoral reversals. A measure of its success is that its ideology has become larger than the party itself: the Bahujan Samaj Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and even the Congress are not averse to practising the politics of “soft Hindutva”. The political space for Muslim minorities has shrunk to non-existence, except as a kind of political bait.
The sheer strength of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the VHP, its penetration of mainstream Hinduism, the quality and character of the next generation of the BJP leadership waiting in the wings, all suggest that Hindutva will only become emboldened. There will now be serious rumblings over Ayodhya, and the BJP is all set to target Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two states where an anti-incumbency sentiment might hurt the Congress.
The Congress tried very feebly to make governance an issue in the Gujarat elections. But it is difficult to make it an issue for two reasons. First, most voters do not see much difference in the moral credibility of different political parties; very few politicians possess reputations for delivering good governance. Second, there is an odd sense in which, despite the recent economic slowdown, there is no serious economic discontent. Gujarat’s economy has not been faring well over the last two years, but there is no palpable sense of crisis. In part this suggests that compared to India’s own historical experience, the last ten years have been years of unprecedented gain.
Inflation, the one economic index that affects elections the most, has been very low, and it is difficult for any political plank based on the economy to gather momentum. Unless there is an economic catastrophe that translates into high inflation, it is unlikely that economic issues will dominate elections in the near future. Since there are no other distributive coalitions in the making either, the politics of identity will have freer space. One should not, therefore, be too sanguine about wishing Hindutva away as the central political issue.
But the long-term significance of Gujarat is this. Now that the feeling that “Hindus” are under siege is widespread, our politics will, for the foreseeable future, remain tensely perched on a precipice. The calm that prevailed after Akshardham notwithstanding, any incident of violence, whether perpetrated by terrorists or someone else, has the potential of unleashing a vicious cycle of reprisal and counter-violence. As Gujarat shows, it is now politically acceptable to kill innocent Indian citizens and for the state leadership to justify it in the language of self-defence and revenge.
Gujarat shows that the political gains from creating polarization through violence are tempting enough for the ruling party. The fact that the administration in most states is not in the hands of the BJP may be some consolation. But there are no guarantees that the next time there is some terrorist violence, all bets will not be off. In some ways, Gujarat has played into the hands of Pervez Musharraf. In the course of 50 years and three wars, Pakistan has never been able to generate support from Indian Muslims or incite them to violence against the Indian state. But terrorism has taken such a heavy psychological toll on the Hindus that they themselves are now ready to incite violence.
Gujarat shows how combustible the communal atmosphere in India can become. There are too many constituencies with an incentive to light the fuse: terrorists who know that their psychological warfare is working, and a BJP that is none too reluctant to engage in a politics of polarization. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we have become a nation more susceptible to a politics of anxiety, a politics that is more apocalyptic than rational. Our democracy will increasingly cease to be a repository of liberal values.
This view may seem apocalyptic to some, and it should be stressed that a violent outcome is not over-determined. But despite occasional reversals, Hindutva has gone from strength to strength and may now be in a position to jettison its remaining inhibitions. Aggression will be the order of the day. Modi said that a victory for the Congress would be a victory for Musharraf. In a deeper sense, Modi’s victory is going to blur the moral lines between India and Pakistan. Perhaps BJP supporters should acknowledge this much: Modi’s victory is a victory for Pakistan. We are becoming what they want us to become.