GUJARAT ELECTION SHIFTS BALANCE OF POWER IN INDIAN POLITICS

 

Raghav Narsalay*
December 22nd 2002

Sunday 15 December 2002 was a long day for the people in Gujarat, the troubled state neighbouring Maharashtra and Rajasthan in the west of India, as they waited anxiously for the results of the state assembly elections.

For major political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP - the party leading the tenuous coalition Indian Government), the Congress (CI - the major opposition party in the state) and the Left Parties, these elections were politically crucial for several reasons.

Most importantly, it was the first election after the multi-month pogrom earlier this year (known internationally as the Carnage after Godhra) aimed at cleansing religious minority communities (particularly Muslims), economically disadvantaged people and razing their assets in various regions of Gujarat. This pogrom was carried out in the of "Hindutva" -- a term coined by the leadership of the BJP and its cadre building outfits, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to equate national pride and national honour with dominant Hindu religion.

What's more, the outcome of this election would be a critical factor in defining the political agenda and future of the BJP as it would establish a new equations within the BJP itself, between the so-called moderate neo-liberal BJP leaders occupying important national ministerial positions (including the Prime Minister) and the anti-neoliberal extreme from the VHP and the RSS (including the Deputy Prime Minister).

Finally, for the traditionally strong Congress party, its performance would be a test of the electorate's reaction to what right wing elements describe as the "Congress brand of secularism" and what the Left calls as "pseudo-secularism" of the Congress, while an anti-BJP vote coupled with a lukewarm support for the Congress would create political opportunities for the Left and their allies to push forward a very different kind of agenda.

UNEXPECTED MARGIN OF VICTORY
Although the BJP was expected to win the polls, the margin of victory was a surprise, winning with a massive two-thirds 126 seats in the 182-member Assembly (up from 117). Congress fared much worse than predicted getting just 51, compared to 57 previously. Of the remaining four, three went to the Independents and one was bagged by Janata Dal (United) – another secular party.
This was the BJP’s first major victory after a string of defeats in the past two years and the success comes ahead of the crucial Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi next year and the 2004 Lok Sabha (national assembly) polls. Significantly, in Rajasthan BJP won all the three Assembly by-elections as well as the Mehsana by-election to the Lok Sabha.

In Godhra, where the train carnage changed the course of state politics, BJP candidate and Bajrang Dal leader defeated the sitting Congress member. In the Panchamahals district comprising Godhra, the BJP swept the elections. Again in Vadodara, one of the worst hit cities in communal violence, the party won all the 13 seats.

The BJP also made a clean sweep in tribal-dominated eastern belt, winning all the 12 seats in the region including, Godhra.

However, in the BJP stronghold of largely riot-free Saurashtra region where it won 52 of the 58 seats in 1998, the party yielded several seats to the Congress. Similar was the position in the Kutch region, which was devastated by an earthquake two years ago and where questions over governance figured prominently during the campaign.

BALANCE OF POWER SHIFTS

As the results poured in, the deputy prime minister and Mr. Narendra Modi (the Chief Minister of the dissolved Assembly) -- both hardline anti-neoliberal RSS "pracharaks" (senior activists) -- described the verdict as a defeat of the forces that “spread slander and venom” against the people, administration and the state police.

After an overwhelming victory in Gujarat state elections, the message from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clear: if you want decisive electoral victories, pursue the agenda of Sangh Parivar ("parivar" means family) constituents. Simply put: RSS wants BJP to listen to Vishwa Hindu Parishad and consolidate Hindu votes in the process, heed the advise of Swadesh Jagran Manch (SJM) on economic issues and give an ear to Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh on labour reforms.

According to a senior RSS office-bearer, the organization is in the process of identifying more RSS pracharaks (senior activists) to be deputed to BJP. “Gujarat has shown what the combined strength of the Parivar can achieve. In terms of organization reach, in Gujarat VHP is the number one organisation, BJP is second and RSS is third,” he elaborated.

NEW TENSIONS IN THE GOVERNMENT AGENDA
The margin of victory in the Gujarat elections is no doubt going to come to the rescue of the BJP while pushing forward its political and economic agenda within the Coalition at the Centre.

Furthermore, the margin of such a victory would even reduce the intensity of somewhat secular voices in the Coalition due to the fear of the so-called "Hindu backlash" during forthcoming elections.
The most interesting contest is now about to unfold between the hardline RSS and SJM supporters and the neoliberal BJP individuals who hold top ministerial positions, eventhough they bypassed the RSS, VHP and SJM hierarchy. The RSS and the VHP can now use their increased political might within to carve out space in order influence the pace and direction on key economic and political issues such as disinvestment, investment and trade liberalization and so-called second generation reforms.

The likelihood of Ministers such as Arun Shourie (minister for disinvestment and with the additional charge of the ministry of commerce and industry) and Jaswant Singh (minister for finance and company affairs) succumbing to the pressures coming from the SJM and the RSS quarters is at an all time high. This intensification of engagement between the constituent outfits and the Party needs to be carefully observed, especially in the context of Government positions on crucial issues such as investment and competition at the forthcoming Cancun Ministerial Conference of the WTO.

During the last Ministerial Conference at Doha, Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran (presently ill and in hospital) successfully extracted the language of “explicit consensus” on the "Singapore issues" (that is, investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation). In short, the Ministers endorsed at Doha that negotiations on any of these issues would begin when there is an explicit consensus at the Cancun Ministerial, which recommends the General Council of the WTO to move in the direction of negotiations. According to the latest reports, the Quad (US+EU+Japan+Canada) seems to have little concern about respecting the language of “explicit consensus” and is pushing to launch negotiations on “Singapore issues” at the end of the Cancun Ministerial.

Taking advantage of the Quad's position, Minister for Disinvestment, Arun Shourie, who is the most neoliberal of the lot, might use this particular political opportunity to accelerate his agenda of disinvestment and second-generation reforms. His selling strategy to the RSS and the SJM would be that it is better to disinvest right now, before one has to start doing the same on the terms set by foreigners. It will be interesting to watch the response of the SJM and the RSS to such a situation. Given their rhetoric of sovereignty and on other right wing nationalist positions, one can at least expect a heated exchange if Arun Shourie pushes his "disinvest now before it's too late" argument.

On the Gujarat front, the BJP and its outfits now have more legitimacy to remove any obstacles in the way to completing the Sardar Sarovar Project (Namada) and other large, infrastructure projects. This implies that the political space for the marginalised communities to fight for their legitimate rights is going to shrink and this might actually give rise to armed conflict and greater violence in various regions of Gujarat.

SECURITY IMPLCATIONS
The government has already pushed a number of changes in the security regime at the national level and the regime now is “hawkish”. The influence of the RSS and the VHP "macho" security agenda became clear with the Pokhran nuclear test. Since then, instead of taking measures to reduce the tension in the region the Government has maintained steady defence expenditure and has used valuable foreign exchange assets to buy "strategic and tactical" defence equipment. Furthermore, the BJP-led Coalition has found it strategic to use the Pakistan card and to distance itself from the Palestinian struggle, to bolster support from the VHP and the RSS. It is becoming clear that the VHP and the RSS, in order to push forth their dream of Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State), are using the State machinery and are incorporating their agenda into the State security policy to effectively link terrorism with Islam. Their motive is simple: to demonize Islam and to create hated for the religion.

Since assuming power, the BJP has been experimenting with ways of gaining US support for its stand on Kashmir and so-called militancy in the region. Post September 11, the VHP and the RSS did everything to push the Government to convince US to declare Pakistan as a "terrorist state". But at the same time, in order to guard its position on sovereignty, it has been watchful that the government does not go overboard to please the US.

The victory in Gujarat has created a greater room for the RSS and the VHP to frame the security agenda of the BJP and therefore, largely, of the Indian government. Already the RSS and the VHP have clarified that the Gujarat victory is their first step towards creation of a "Hindu State", and that they intend to repeat the politics played in Gujarat to create the "Hindu Rashtra". Although the BJP has come out officially denouncing this line, there are no two thoughts that it is just a show, in order to convince people that BJP, in spite of playing the "Hindutva" card, still believes in secularism.

Given that BJP leaders and the newly elected Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi kept on referring to Pakistan in his election speeches, it is likely that the BJP position on Pakistan will get even more hawkish. Similarly, there will be a strong internal push to ally with Nepalese Government (Nepal being the only Hindu State) to crush the Maoist uprising and the Indian security set up would be asked to even put Bangladesh on the "black list". All the above only implies greater instability in the region.

In this context, it will be key to watch the tussle between the tired, old, so-called moderate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the strong "Pracharak" Deputy Prime Minister.

In short, the third consecutive victory for the BJP in Gujarat and the political context in which it has been achieved puts religious fundamentalism and communalism on a dangerous upswing. Besides this, there will be an intense engagement between the BJP leadership and the leadership of the VHP and the RSS, who will demand more space in international and national economic and security policymaking for the services rendered and results secured in Gujarat. But it would be too simplistic to say that this will result in the downfall of the BJP-led coalition.

The BJP’s third consecutive victory also raises serious questions about Congress, the Left Parties and their allies. In the coming years, they have a Herculean task to expose the BJP on various issues and, at the same time, creating a political atmosphere that is more open to minorities and their concerns. Peoples movements, trade unions, mass organizations also face a major challenge of not only being isolated but also of losing their base as the newly formed BJP government tries every trick to break and woo their mass support.

*Raghav Narsalay is a research associate with Focus on the Global South, India