This is the morning after the night before. As I write, newscasters are announcing the sweep to power in Gujarat’s mid-term elections of Narendra Modi, riding a wave of right-wing rhetoric that has enormous portents for India’s future. Mr Modi came to power about a year ago, selected by the high command of his Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, which leads India’s ruling coalition: the National Democratic Front) to strengthen the party’s hold over Gujarat. This was after state after state had rejected the BJP, leaving Gujarat as its sole bastion. Gujarat had suffered the devastating January 2001earthquake, and two years of drought. Anxiety and tension have been high, fueled by the ruling party’s relentless support to those who promote the notion of India as a “Hindu state”. Their projection of the Muslim minority as a pro-Pakistan, terrorist Trojan Horse has drawn liberally on. September 11 and the events that followed it, including the attack on India’s Parliament House last December. All these have been cleverly manipulated to reinforce a sense of siege among Hindus, demanding an end to “appeasement” of potential traitors. Coalition politics have meant that BJP leaders in New Delhi, particularly Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Deputy, L K Advani, have to play the role of moderates. Militant rhetoric has been largely left to the Rashtriya Sevak Samaj (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the BJP’s ‘sympathisers’ who are also its storm troops. The main pot kept on the boil by the RSS and the VHP has been their demand for a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. It was this medieval mosque that was smashed by RSS and VHP hordes on December 6 1992, the most devastating attack on India’s secular fabric since the Partition of 1947.
Facing the BJP’s defeat after defeat in state elections, Ayodhya became the rallying point for the rightist combine. It called on “volunteers” to travel to the temple town and help defy a ban on construction. These volunteers were largely recruited from Gujarat. The trains carrying them to UP became catalysts for tension all along the way, and most particularly at stations where Muslim passengers and vendors could be teased. One of the stations near Gujarat’s eastern border is Godhra. It is here that a coach containing volunteers returning from Ayodhya was torched by a Muslim mob in February. An enquiry is still pending, while reports have spoken of harassment along the platform and of a mafia gang organised for the attack. Over 20 Hindu passengers were burnt to death. By the evening, many parts of Gujarat were in flames. Mr Modi and his ministers pleaded helplessness as mobs rampaged through the streets, targeting Muslim men, women and children and any business establishment in which Muslims were owners and partners. Hundreds of shrines were attacked, many of them demolished. Voters lists, computerised maps, sales tax records, cell phones: all these are said to have been used to direct the mobs. Careful preparation was apparent. The police were largely spectators, and have also been accused of actively abetting the mayhem that lasted for weeks, and the curfew and tension for months. Thousands of Muslims and some Hindus as well fled to ‘relief camps’ hastily set up in schools, mosques and graveyards without any basic facilities of water or sanitation. In summer temperatures that rose to 45C, the suffering in these concentrations was unimaginable, made worse by a failed monsoon. The official death toll is 1000. Unofficially, more than double that number. The numbers of rape, arson and loot have been beyond counting. Media coverage carried the horror of Gujarat into India’s living rooms and around the world. Investigative teams of citizens and human rights activists have provided a detailed documentation of a pogrom in which the State turned on its own people, for the first time in the history of free India.
Apparently reacting to criticism, Mr. Narendra Modi suspended the state legislature, and invited an immediate poll to take his case “to the people”. India’s Election Commission refused, demanding time to ensure that homeless citizens could return to some modicum of safety and exercise their franchise. The Modi campaign targeted the Chief Election Commissioner, J M Lyngdoh, in addition to Pakistan’s President, accusing both of being anti-Hindu and anti-Gujarat, carefully spelling out Mr Lyngdoh’s full name in every public utterance — James Michael Lyngdoh— to reinforce a message of nasty minorities. Then a September attack on Akshardham, the largest temple in the state capital of Gandhinagar, gave fresh impetus to the equation of terrorism with Islam and Muslim society.
Once the election date in December was announced, the most intensive state campaign in India’s history was led by Narendra Modi for the BJP and Shankersingh Vaghela, a former BJP minister, heading the Congress opposition. Campaign rhetoric from Mr Modi focussed on a relentless targeting of Islamic terrorism, and of positioning Muslim citizens as potential terrorists. Godhra and the Akshardham attacks were flaunted, in open defiance of the Election Commission’s directives. The VHP and RSS went door to door, distributing literature calling for Hindu unity against an Islamic threat. Heavy- weights from Delhi and all over descended on Gujarat, both for the BJP and the Congress. Sonia Gandhi inaugurated her campaign with a visit to a famous temple, seeking “blessings” for a campaign that skirted the killings, concentrating instead on issues of governance: water, economic decline, and joblessness. By avoiding a direct focus on the March killings, the Congress hoped to avoid giving credence to Modi’s taunts of it being the ‘Muslim party’. It was a clear decision to risk it as the Hindu ‘B Team’ rather than as secularism’s A Team that would demand the restitution of human rights and of the Constitution of the Indian republic.
The campaign began with predictions of a BJP sweep, and then of a tough fight. Finally, pre-poll surveys suggested a neck-to-neck finish. This Sunday, Mr Modi has displayed his aces: a two-thirds majority, with massive support from the very places most affected by murder, arson and loot. Like the destruction of the Babri Masjid exactly a decade ago, this election is another blow at Indian secularism. Citizens of Gandhi’s India have received a wake-up call that simply could not be any louder.
15 December 2002