The election results overturn many established political
trends. The Indian voter tends to judge a party by its
performance in power, especially in respect of public
services, corruption and accountability. If found wanting,
the incumbent is severely punished. Incumbency is a
major electoral disadvantage.
Despite the existence of a small support base for extremist
ethnic-chauvinist politics, India's electorate has never
voted seriously for it, nor rewarded violence used for
political ends. Typically, caste and class issues play
a larger role in electoral choice than religion. Caste
equations did not favour the Gujarat BJP.
In Gujarat, the party's's performance was appalling.
Domestic growth ground down from eight percent a year
to barely one percent. Water and power shortages became
more acute. Unem! ployment skyrocketed. And corruption
Owing to these factors, the BJP was widely expected
to be routed in the elections -- until February. Then,
genocidal madness took over.
Rampaging mobs, unrestrained by Modi's police, burned,
raped and looted at will, killing 2,000 people, displacing
half a million and destroying property worth 2 billion
U.S. dollars. There was a total breakdown of constitutional
legality for months under Modi's ethnic cleansing. Modi
ensured that crimes against humanity would not be properly
registered, and the guilty not prosecuted.
The pogrom stunned India, spurring a demand for Modi's
dismissal. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee refused.
Modi ran a campaign driven by sectarian venom and
ethnic hatred. He equated Islam with fundamentalism,
and blamed the main opposition party, Sonia Gandhi's
Congress, of maligning Gujarat's "fair name".
This created sharp polarisation along ethni! c-religious
The polarisation's effects are starkly evident in
the election results. The BJP's biggest gains come precisely
from the central and northern regions that witnessed
the greatest anti-Muslim violence - there it got 52
out of 65 seats.
Modi's brazenly Hindu-sectarian and xenophobic appeal,
directed sharply at Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins,
paid rich dividends.
Never before has an Indian politician made such handsome
electoral gains -- literally on dead bodies. Modi has
emerged as the mascot or torchbearer of a muscular,
hardline version of Vajpayee's Hindu nationalism. In
the Gujarat campaign, he sidelined Vajpayee and his
hardline deputy, Lal Krishna Advani.
Until now, Vajpayee alone in the BJP was regarded
as a crowd-puller and vote-catcher. Now, the old, ailing
leader has a youthful, energetic rival in Modi, one
unburdened by political decency or etiquette.
Modi has given the BJP the hope that ! it can revive
itself and win the national election due 2004 -- which
it is widely expected to lose thanks to its unpopular
right-wing economic and social politics.
But the BJP will be tempted to use the Modi formula
of violence and polarisation in assembly elections due
next year in seven states, including the Delhi capital
territory. If the formula works in some of these, the
party would want to try it at the national level.
This means the BJP could stoop to fomenting religious
hatred and sectarian violence. Its right wing regards
Gujarat as a successful "laboratory" of violence.
This has frightful implications for Indian society and
In some of these states, Muslims are a tiny minority
and very vulnerable to Hindu extremists. There are Muslim
baiters in the Indian police and civil services who
might shield the extremists.
Internally for the BJP, the hardline, pro-Modi group
will try to take over not just th! e organisational
apparatus, but its parliamentary wing too. This group
could soon displace Vajpayee and co-opt Advani.
It is likely to be backed by other hard-right elements
in the extended Hindu-fundamentalist family, including
party founder and ideological mentor, the Rashtriya
Swasevak Sangh or National Self-help Organisation, and
others best described as the Hindu Taliban.
These groupings have grown in political weight vis-a-vis
the Vajpayee leadership. They want the party to establish
a Hindu state, in which the religious minorities are
politically disenfranchised or become second-class citizens.
The effete, compromised Vajpayee leadership is unlikely
to be able to withstand their onslaught. Vajpayee's
capitulation will lead to a hardening of official policies
on a range of issues.
For instance, Modi is particularly hostile to reconciliation
with Pakistan, and extremely pro-Likud Party and anti-Palestinian.
Under! his line, India may also support an unwarranted
war on Iraq.
If the hardliners prevail, India will further step
up military spending, accelerate nuclear and missile
development, and adopt tough policies towards neighbours.
It will play a retrograde role in world affairs and
a domineering role in South Asia.
The world's powers, especially the United States,
took a relatively soft, benign view of the Gujarat carnage.
The European Union issued a demarche expressing concern.
The United States' indulgent attitude toward Vajpayee's
inaction on Gujarat was the result of three factors.
First, historically, the BJP has always been pro-United
States. In recent years, it has aligned itself with
U.S. interests, especially in business.
Second, the United States would like to consolidate
an unequal, asymmetrical
alliance or "strategic" partnership with India,
at least partly to contain China in the long term.
Third, there is a powerful pro-BJP lobby among the
two million people of Indian origin who live in the
The U.S.-based Campaign to Stop Funding Hate recently
published a report tracing the donations collected by
the India Development and Relief Fund,from big companies
like Cisco, and transferred to BJP front organisations.
Britain's Channel 4 television and the Charity Commission
too have found links between such groups and Hindu charities
These shadowy links are an integral part of the international
network run by an organisation which drums up xenophobic
hysteria for political gains. It is time the international
community took note of these links, and contributed
to domestic secular efforts to stop the Hindu-fascist
juggernaut and bring the guilty of Gujarat to book.