National

A Whole Lotta Shaking

That is what's happening as parties at the epicentre study their political cost-benefit analyses

A Whole Lotta Shaking
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The gods have surely not been kind to Gujarat of late. The state's smooth-talking home minister, Haren Pandya, believes the bjp's been particularly unlucky as it was re-elected to power nearly three years ago with a two-thirds majority. "There have been seven natural calamities since then—two droughts, two cyclones, two floods and now the terrible earthquake," he rues. When such calamities overwhelm people, they get angry. When people get angry, they vent it on the government, says Pandya. Whosoever is in power suffers.

One of the ironies of the Gujarat quake is that it is big brother rss that's gained from it (see following story). As for the bjp government, it is cutting a pretty sorry picture. Chief minister Keshubhai Patel has come under attack for his delay before venturing out to the worst-affected areas. Indeed, so reclusive is the CM that he has delegated many of his responsibilities to his home minister, who in turn has been hogging media attention.

The quake's political fallout is cause for worry for the bjp; Gujarat's its last unbreached citadel. In states like UP, Jharkhand or Himachal Pradesh, it's had to cobble up a majority with the help of independents or small parties. Gujarat is also important from the ideological view: it is the country's most aggressively "Hindu" bjp regime. In 1998, the party had got 45 per cent of the vote in the assembly polls; the Congress was a poor second with 35 per cent.

That's why partymen worry the quake could be a political disaster for the bjp. Especially as the ruling party had received a rude shock in the panchayat polls last September. The bjp faced a virtual rout as the Congress bagged 19 of 23 district panchayats. Ratilal Varma, five-time bjp MP from Dhandhuka, near Ahmedabad, says "Janata hamein jhatka dena chahti thi (The people wanted to give us a jolt). But that does not mean they want to bring the Congress to power. It was a wake-up call. We were getting complacent and arrogant."

But won't the quake's devastation add to anti-incumbency? Some feel the drift will only continue under Keshubhai. This group has some backing from powerful national-level bjp leaders from Gujarat. But the Patel's a wily politician who's survived many storms. Besides, his opponents don't really have adequate backing in the state.

The bigger challenge will be to quell public anger after the sort of devastation Gujarat has suffered. Gordhanbhai Zadafia, general secretary of the Gujarat bjp, believes much will depend on how the government performs in providing relief and rehabilitation. Says he: "In such a situation, no government can perform satisfactorily. The challenge now will be to utilise the relief funds. Those who have lost their homes must be given shelter before the monsoons this year." At the same time, Zadafia makes a distinction between the government and the party. "The government works through the bureaucracy, which has its limitations. The party works through its workers."

In Gujarat, the rss association is the bjp's greatest strength. Former bjp president Kushabhau Thakre, who's been camping in the state since the quake, says there is no difference between the bjp and the rss worker. "We work together. We coordinate our efforts. The most fortunate aspect for the bjp is that our Sangh network is formidable." Zadafia reveals that the entire relief effort is being coordinated. He has a list where the quake-affected areas have been divided into different zones and put under various bjp/rss/vhp leaders."There is so much overlapping in membership," he says. "If the rss is being praised, the bjp benefits."

That is why a bjp strategist sees the quake as an opportunity for the party. "Everywhere, people sing the rss' praises. And they also realise the Congress is nowhere." Varma laughs: "The Congress has no workers. It has only leaders. People will now realise this." He has a point. The Congress was conspicuous by its absence in the aftermath of the quake.

A telling incident took place at Shikhar apartments in Ahmedabad, a 10-storey structure that collapsed, killing 90 people. Resident Mihir Mehta reveals that Congress workers landed up and told the survivors they would assist them if the rss cadres were sent away. Says Mehta: "We told them to get lost. Where were they in the first few days?" Interestingly, the same residents singing the rss' praises also sent away home minister L.K. Advani, as they saw him as a symbol of government.

Pandya believes that this sort of anger will abate in time. "People are angry with the government, any government. Not just the bjp." At the same time, like many other state bjp leaders, Pandya believes that there is some amount of disenchantment with the bjp because of the dilution of Hindutva. "In Gujarat, people are committed to the ideals of Hindutva. But we have had to dilute our ideology because of the nda government at the Centre. This dilution led to the caste factor again dominating and harming the bjp in the panchayat polls."

Pandya says the bjp in Gujarat has some plans to recover some of its lost "Hindu" glory: development of the major 'yatra dhams'; government help to Gujaratis going on outside pilgrimages like to Kailash Mansarovar; very stern laws against cow slaughter which permit preventive arrests. "We have to walk a tightrope. Be pro-Hindu without being anti-minority," he says.

While the Hindu card certainly has its uses in Gujarat, Sangh strategists see the huge amount of money pouring in as the real break for the party. A senior Gujarat minister says: "Unprecedented amounts of money is pouring in. This itself will strengthen the government and our entire rss network." It's clear that in Gujarat, the bjp may be in power but its lifeline is the rss. The question is whether the party can ride piggy-back on the Sangh cadre and weather the growing anti-incumbency storm.

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