Is Hindu nationalism, after Gujarat, set on an inexorable march to political victory? Or, will the rough and tumble of Indian politics clutter, impede and ultimately stop its onward march? This vitally important question has returned to the national political agenda. It will soon be answered in the electoral playing fields of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and, quite possibly, Uttar Pradesh in 2003. What does Gujarat mean for the rest of the country? What should we expect elsewhere, and why?
Leaving the scale of the BJP's victory aside, we should first note that there is nothing in the least bit surprising in the results of the Gujarat polls. Anyone who has spent time doing research in Gujarat in recent years knows that Gandhi's Gujarat, a towering part of modern India's customary history my generation was reared on, is at best a faint historic memory for most people in that state. Lonely and brave Gandhian NGOs aside, Hindu nationalism is the air Gujarat breathes today. Ishwar Allah tero naam
and Vaishnav jana to tene kahiye
are by now mere historical curiosities, not the immediately recognisable songs of its popular culture. On Gujarat, the fire-breathing VHP leader, Praveen Togadia, is right: the recently concluded elections have perhaps written the epitaph of the Gandhi-Nehru vision in his state. For more than 10 years, Hindu nationalists have consistently got more than 40 per cent of Gujarat's vote (and a larger proportion of its seats). And yet again after 1991, when the elections were parliamentary, they have crossed the 50 per cent mark. If these percentages are any guide, Hindu nationalism has clearly spread far beyond the upper castes, its natural habitat, to include the "lower" castes and adivasis.
Sociologists have often used the term "Sanskritisation" for the phenomenon of the "lower orders" of Hindu society following the upper. But what has happened in Gujarat is no mere Sanskritisation. An anti-Muslim ideology is the bond of unity today between the "upper" and "lower" orders, not a sharing of Brahmin-Bania rituals. In its conceptual sweep, Sanskritisation never incorporated the kind of virulence we have witnessed this year in Gujarat.
In effect, Gujarat's electorate has legitimised independent India's first unambiguous pogrom, a pogrom much more vicious than the killings of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, a pogrom that came closest to the classic, anti-Jewish pogroms of Russia and Europe in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The Congress party, though deplorably involved in anti-Sikh violence in 1984, never had an anti-Sikh ideology. For purely electoral reasons, the Congress became contingently anti-Sikh for a while. In contrast, the VHP, the RSS and their stormtroopers, the Bajrang Dal, have an anti-Muslim ideological core.
Therefore, the victory of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress in 1985 was basically a strategic phenomenon, cynically parasitic as the Congress campaign was on Mrs Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. The BJP's victory in Gujarat, on the contrary, is ideological. It is about a larger vision of the polity, in which minorities, as the RSS put it earlier this year, must seek protection in the goodwill of the majority community, not in the laws of the land. The massive legitimisation of an ideologically charged pogrom is a truly bruising embarrassment for all Indian liberals and a severe undermining of the pluralist national vision in Gujarat, the land where that vision in modern times was born.
What comes next? Regardless of what the national leadership of the BJP wants, the VHP is very likely to try a Gujarat-like campaign in MP and Rajasthan, the two major states going to polls in 2003. Indeed, from the VHP's perspective, such a campaign would be immensely attractive.After all, like Gujarat, politics in MP and Rajasthan is bifocal: elections are, on the whole, a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress. Like Gujarat, again, the Muslim proportion of the population in Rajasthan and MP is low, which makes the view that Muslim votes are dispensable highly tempting. Like Gujarat, the numbers of adivasis, especially in MP and Chhattisgarh, is large. And finally, like Gujarat, the tradition of lower-caste politics is still to develop in MP and Rajasthan. They have no Mulayams and Laloos fighting Hindu nationalists through populist, mass-based politics, with an alliance of Muslims and lower castes. The Congress is an umbrella party, not a lower-caste party. As a result, it does not any more ignite the kind of passion against Hindu nationalism the lower-caste parties tend to.
The similarities, however, end here. Four reasons make a Gujarat-style process and outcome entirely improbable:
First, consider the role of the diaspora, an increasingly significant factor in Indian politics. The diaspora from MP and Rajasthan simply does not have the wealth, numbers, political proclivities or the ideological persuasion of the Gujarati diaspora in the West. In what is clearly an inadequately researched but widely understood link, the Gujarati diaspora in the US has played a very large role in invigorating Hindu nationalism "back home"—by mightily contributing to organisations such as the VHP, by promoting through financial donations adivasi schools which have also become ideological training grounds. As a result, a vast network of Hindu nationalist organisations reached virtually every village of Gujarat. Such a network does not exist in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This organisational asymmetry will be one of the greatest handicaps for the VHP in state polls.
Second, these states also happen to be more rural than Gujarat. The path-breaking surveys conducted by Yogendra Yadav and his colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, unambiguously show that the BJP's vote is positively correlated with urban electoral settings and negatively with rural constituencies. Whatever benefits it brings, Gujarat's urbanism is not an ideological blessing for pluralists, and however poor otherwise, the overwhelmingly rural character of MP and Rajasthan inoculates them against the ideological spread of Hindu nationalism.
Third, the governments in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are not in BJP hands. They will simply not allow the VHP the freedom to play all its cards. Nothing buoys the VHP more than a Hindu-Muslim riot, especially if it can be blamed on Muslims. And, after Gujarat, nothing will stimulate administrative action by the Congress governments more than such riots. In and of itself, administrative action does not necessarily stop a riot, but it makes its spread less probable.
Fourth and final, the VHP is far and away the most politically unrestrained, legally unmindful and rhetorically brazen organisation in India today. It is a serious headache not only for the pluralistically minded Indians at large, but often also for the top rungs of the BJP leadership. The VHP-BJP relationship is shot through with all sorts of ambiguities. They share a larger ideology, but the more ideologically passionate the BJP's union with the VHP becomes, the greater will be the disaffection in Delhi's ruling coalition. This contradiction can be managed if and only if big Hindu-Muslim riots don't break out in other states and the political focus, instead, is on some other matter. For example, an unwavering focus on Pakistan can unite all elements of the Sangh parivar as well as the coalition partners.
In contrast, horrific Hindu-Muslim riots may unite the RSS, VHP and the Bajrang Dal, but they also tend to push the BJP's ruling coalition very hard.The NDA government would have collapsed in March or April if the major constituents of the NDA coalition had not had the Congress as a prime political adversary in their respective states. Gujarat's riots took place in a moment of fortuity for Hindu nationalists.
If more Hindu-Muslim riots, especially in other states, break out, the coalition partners will have to ask what is more important: continuing in the coalition and incurring the loss of Muslim votes, or opposing the Congress in their states. Especially critical will be the TDP, DMK and BSP in that order, all of whom rely substantially on Muslim votes. And once politics reaches that stage, the BJP too will have to ask if cementing ties with the VHP is more important than staying in power and being seen as a partner, not a liability, by other parties.
That is why, as long as it is unable to garner 40 per cent of India's vote on its own and continues to rely on coalition partners, the BJP will have to contain the extremes of VHP activities outside Gujarat. If and only if the BJP loses interest in power will it have the freedom to embrace the VHP fully.
To be sure, the BJP needs the VHP's organisational strength and cadres to campaign vigorously, but if it does not exercise control over the VHP, the BJP weakens itself politically. Sometimes, this contradiction is said to depend only on the presence of Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm, and it is argued that the contradiction will disappear when Lal Krishna Advani takes control of the BJP's executive wing. Such a personality-based reading is flawed. Anyone having prime ministerial ambitions is bound to be hurt by a close association with the VHP. The parishad is far too rabid an organisation to be of consistent help in governance. Blinded by a hatred for Muslims, it is an utterly wild card.
In sum, the odds are substantial that the VHP will seek to repeat a Gujarat in the 2003 elections. And the odds are also equally high that it will fail in its mission. Is there anything that can change this likely course of political events?
Another Godhra, for sure. An act of egregious violence on the part of a Muslim mob, or one that can be blamed on India's Muslim minority, will almost certainly upset all probabilistic calculations. However wrong it may sound to liberal or secular ears, nothing gives greater life to Hindu nationalism than a credible claim that Muslims are intolerably violent. It is in the interests of those who care about India's pluralism to somehow make sure that a Godhra, or an event equally symbolically dangerous, is not repeated. For a pluralistic future in India, minority communalism must be fought as vigorously as majority communalism. This claim should not be equated with blaming the Muslims for the horrors of post-Godhra Gujarat; it is an undeniable practical reality of Indian politics.
(The author is director, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US. His book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India was published by the Oxford University Press this year.)