Weary Gujarat votes for relief

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Ahemdabad
  • Published 13.12.02

Ahmedabad, Dec. 13: Morning wakes in Gandhi’s silent Satyagraha Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati here to children playing cricket with roughly-hewn wooden bats and rubber balls, ashramites washing frugal belongings in the river, singing hymns, and going about daily chores. Eight months ago, the ashram had shut its doors at first to victims of the riots, the action — or inaction — mocking the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys near its main gates.

When its premises were used for a meeting by secularists mobilised chiefly by danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, environment activist Medha Patkar was attacked and the gathering broken up by a rampaging mob of Sangh parivar members. Gandhi’s followers did fan out with relief and in the run-up to these elections have played an activist role, campaigning against the Modi government.

“Everyone is tired and weary,” says Ramji Narsemji, a septuagenarian follower of Gandhi who comes for occasional walks along the riverbank. A phrase in the local language here that is repeated off and on, in town and country, is “kantal”. Today, the morning after the polls, the exit polls and all the punditry, the phrase rings again and again with greater frequency than before.

Kantal describes the feeling of weariness mixed with scepticism about the possibility of circumstances changing for the better. In Himmatnagar, a Bajrang Dal leader, a tribal, said in the heat of the electioneering: “I hope we can get everyone out for the polls. Kantal aa gaya hain logon mein (people are tired) after listening to the same thing over and over again for so many months.”

Some youths from the Bajrang Dal leader’s village in Sabarkantha district are still in jail after having been picked up in the wake of the riots. But the organisers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has a much bigger presence, are out of prison, campaigning or contesting.

“The feeling of cynicism runs deep and wide,” said political analyst and social activist Achyut Yagnik. “The political parties have realised this, too, and are expending so much energy in convincing citizens to turn out in large numbers and vote.”

By the standards of Gujarat, yesterday’s turnout of nearly 62 per cent is very large. It is more a measure of how desperate the race for the polls has been than a reflection of hope for qualitative change.

Unlike the polity in the state, which is sharply divided along communal lines, the cynicism knows no barriers. It is evident among Hindus, Muslims and tribals alike. The reason for it, too, is not hard to seek.

Gujarat has more visible signs of prosperity than most other states. There are more pucca houses, sprawling shopping and office complexes, more cyber-cafes, more cooperatives, more smooth, ribbon-like roads spreading like veins across its landscape. Yet, religious and casteist propaganda, rumour and allegation feed on one another, lowering the public discourse among a people famed for their business acumen to such depths that, in Laloo Prasad Yadav’s words, risks “reducing Gujarat to a Bihar”.

Take, for instance, the simple and widespread feeling of a threat perception from the Muslim minority that has been harvested by Narendra Modi and distilled to make up his vote-catching Hindutva card. The Muslim electorate in Gujarat is, by common consent, 9 to 10 per cent, smaller than many other states.

Both parties, the Congress and the BJP, distributed tickets to candidates on caste lines. A business centre employee in Ahmedabad said he voted for the BJP candidate in his Asavda constituency in the city because he was a Rajput like him.

Among Muslims, too, the cynicism around their support to the Congress is apparent. A Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, who came here to campaign for his party, was aghast at how deep the Hindu-Muslim feeling ran even in the office.

The leader — a former student of an elite institution in New Delhi — was despondent after party workers owing allegiance to Shankersinh Vaghela wanted two Muslim volunteers in the Congress office out of the premises. The same leader had to stop a Mullah from lapsing into strident rhetoric during a small election meeting in an Ahmedabad locality surrounded by closed textile mills.

To the cynical voter of Gujarat, his ballot counts in expectation of relief, not change. There is little to choose between the politics of the BJP and the Congress. Even Praveen Togadia, the VHP leader, said in an interview today that the people of Gujarat have to choose between the ‘A’ team of the BJP and its ‘B’ team.

“In the Gujarat elections,” he said, “the BJP has become the VHP and the Congress has become the BJP of Vajpayee… you have a choice between BJP A and BJP B.

There is yet another yardstick by which the two parties come out as birds of the same feather. “Gujarat Election Watch”, an organisation consisting mostly of faculty from the Indian Institute of Management has compiled a list of candidates from each party with a criminal background.

Their findings: “One in every six candidates from the BJP and one in every six candidates from the Congress are criminals.”

Said Prof. Trilochan Sastry: “It is pointless to intellectualise and look at this election as a battle between Hindutva and something else as if it is a matter of ideology. These people are thugs. All they want is your vote, so that they can loot. If they have taken to Hindutva today, they will take to the Congress tomorrow.”