The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Hindutva was the only question before the Gujarat electorate

The author is professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The 2002 assembly elections in Gujarat were more like a referendum. The Bharatiya Janata Party set the poser and the rest responded to it. Narendra Modi’s call for early elections was clearly calculated to capitalize on the after-effects of Godhra. The question before the electorate was whether to support Hindutva’s majoritarian programme or not. As there was just no other issue, the elections took on the characteristics of a referendum. Therefore, the poll results should also be analysed as one would a referendum or a plebiscite.

In spite of the fact that the BJP won a clear two-thirds majority in terms of seats, it did not do that well if one looks at the results in terms of a referendum. Less than 50 per cent voted for the BJP, and in many areas, Hindutva forces in fact lost ground. Those who did not vote in favour of the BJP were clearly opposed to the ideology of Hindutva. The parties opposing the BJP and its Hindutva allies, primarily the Congress, had only anti-Hindutva as their election plank. This is why the votes that the combined opposition won did not represent a fragmented verdict. They had all voted against Hindutva.

In an election as surcharged as this one was, to argue that Hindutva was just one of several issues is clearly misleading. Hindutva was the only issue. While it may be argued that those who voted in favour of the BJP may have yielded to fears of national security and of terrorism, this cannot detract from the fact that there was no ambiguity in the minds of those who voted against the BJP.

Modi’s pre-election nervousness had a reasonable factual basis. He was probably looking at the outcome in terms of a referendum, which, under the circumstances, was quite natural. Even in Godhra and Gandhinagar, the BJP did not fare spectacularly. In Godhra, it marginally improved upon its 1999 election performance by winning a mere 0.5 per cent more votes. In Gandhinagar, it actually lost 10 percentage points allowing the Congress to em- erge as the clear winner. In constituencies like Dhrangadhara, Wankaner and Jamjodhpur where the voting turn out was over 70 per cent, the BJP did not do remarkably well.

In Wankaner, if the Nationalist Congress Party had not come in the way, the Congress would indeed have emerged victorious. In over 30 constituencies the Congress lost narrowly. The results could have gone either way. In 17 constituencies, it was the NCP or the Samajwadi Party who acted as spoilers, or else the Congress would have probably won. Had this happened, the tally of seats for the BJP would have been a lot less, and even by election standards, the outcome would not have been something for the saffron parties to crow about.

The post-Godhra riots helped, but not that much. Any sensible analyst in the BJP should realize that the strategy that the BJP adopted for these elections was a pretty chancy affair. Likewise, any sensible observer on the other side should also conclude that on no occasion should the Congress ever allow itself to be shoe-horned into a referendum which is not of its choice.

That the combined anti-BJP forces, most significantly the Congress, did not do as badly in the referendum as they did in the elections is itself quite remarkable. If there were a great show of strength among the saffron parties when Modi was sworn in, it was because of two reasons. The first was plain relief: they were glad that formally the votes cast were for an election and not for a referendum. Secondly, the BJP-led forces were jubilant as only Modi and his followers had an agenda.

A quick look at the election results shows that only two independents won, though independents as a whole took away a crucial 5 per cent of the total votes polled. As for the other parties, besides the Congress and the BJP, they did not even manage to get 1 per cent of the votes. This again indicates the referendum character of this election. This should give the Congress party enough to chew on in terms of strategizing elections for the future. Obviously, the soft Hindutva argument just did not work. If soft Hindutva were so appealing then the National Democratic Alliance allies should have done respectably. After all, their entire existence in the national alliance in the Centre is based on soft Hindutva.

The votes that the Congress received were, therefore, clearly not because it campaigned as Hindutva’s B team. It was a vote against the referendum’s poser for establishing a majoritarian Hindu rule in Gujarat. And let us not forget that over 50 per cent voted against the BJP. Let us also not overlook the other interesting aspect of these elections. The BJP did exceedingly well in roughly 33 reserved constituencies in Gujarat. This was another reason for the BJP’s strong electoral performance in the state.

Can the Modi model be repeated' Yes, but at great risk. The BJP does not independently have a sound base among the Dalits in other parts of India, except in pockets of Madhya Pradesh. Moreover, even after conducting a highly successful riot, the gains were not that significant. It did well in central Gujarat, no doubt, but did not sweep the minds of the electorate state-wide in a massive popular “wave”.

In fact, the metaphor, “wave”, is itself highly suspect as it is used very indiscriminately, particularly in the electoral context. Metaphors, after all, have a way of conditioning one’s thinking, which is why they should be employed very carefully. A convincing electoral victory is often called a wave, giving the impression that nearly everybody is drenched. For example, when Rajiv Gandhi won the elections after his mother’s assassination, it was also considered to be a “wave”. But in large parts of India, many voters were not in favour of Rajiv Gandhi. Consider, for instance, what happened in Medak, which was supposed to be such a safe Congress constituency.

As the wave metaphor hides from view the fact that a large body of voters are on the other side, when the tables turn the next time round it comes as a huge surprise to everybody. How could this happen, they ask' It is not just election results which swing from one extreme to the other, our political analyses do so as well. This not only muddles electoral forecasting but also creates a false political atmosphere in which ordinary people have to somehow manage their lives.

If we are able to wade our way out of this wave metaphor we will find that there is just one survival mantra for secularists. An electoral strategy cannot be devised piecemeal. There must be a vision of India and a clear statement of “Project India”. The Congress leadership gave no thought to these matters and that is why it lost the elections. The only silver lining is that the sleeping secular forces together somehow managed to win the referendum.

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