Indian secularism suffers blow in Gujarat elections

AHMDABAD, Gujarat – “The BJP’s victory is a setback for the cause of secular democracy,” said D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 127 seats, gaining control of two-thirds of the 182-seat assembly in Gujarat, where thousands of people died in 2002 in the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in a decade.

The BJP and other right-wing organizations used the Godhra tragedy of last year and created a campaign based on fear. “Be careful passing through Muslim-dominated areas. Ask the government to set up police outposts in such areas. Ask for a Hindu-friendly officer. Women be careful while shopping in Muslim-dominated markets like Dhalgarwad in Ahmdabad, you might be raped…” These are the words from a pamphlet distributed by Hindu right-wing activists throughout the state.

Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s election speeches were aggressive and humiliating. He attacked Muslims in every election meeting, asking Muslims to go to Pakistan. Compact discs of his recorded speeches were also distributed in every corner of the state.

Underlining the atmosphere of fear, Delhi University Professor Nalini Taneja wrote in People’s Democracy, before the Dec. 15 elections, “Regardless of who wins the elections, it is the hard reality that the Gujarat elections should not have been held at all. … The Modi government should have been dismissed first, and elections announced only after that, with return of some semblance of normalcy, when people are in a position to vote without fear or pressure. Such a situation does not exist today.”

Terrorism was another instrument that the BJP used effectively, by combining it with anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Gujarat shares a short border with Pakistan and a temple in Gujarat was attacked last year. In his Gourav Yatra (a journey to spread Hinduism in the state) Modi constantly used terrorism. In his vocabulary, terrorism is not just cross-border terrorism. He explained it as Muslims’ aggression over Hindus.

So effective was this demagogy that one editor said, “The campaign is not seen as a contest between political parties, but between Modi and terrorism.”

The Indian National Congress (INC) party did not effectively answer the BJP’s lies and rhetoric. INC candidates spent much time campaigning to prove their Hindu credentials. For example, “[W]hen the Hindutva forces spew rhetoric that links Congress victory with victory of Pakistan and likens Sonia Gandhi to Musharraf, Sonia and her party are not in a position to state that it is part of our foreign policy that we be friends with our neighbours. She says instead that it was Indira Gandhi who taught Pakistan a lesson not they,” Teneja wrote.

INC failed to highlight the important issues like poverty, joblessness and lack of fundamental infrastructure.

The BJP made a clean sweep in the areas where last year’s communal violence was the worst. But they failed miserably in regions where communal violence didn’t take place. Eight former ministers, the speaker of the dissolved assembly and deputy speaker were defeated. They are all from these regions, where access to clean drinking water is a major problem, ignored by the last BJP government.

“Now politics in India will be based on Hindutva (Hindu-ness),” Hindu Council leader Praveen Togadia was quoted in one news service. The World Hindu Council, which wants India to become a Hindu nation, dropping its 55-year tradition of secular government, calls this policy Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness.”

Modi’s victory is problematic for some in his own party who are preaching “moderate Hindutva.” Modi and likeminded “Hinduists” consider this victory gives them carte blanche for their hardcore “Hindutva.” There is a devision between Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani who is leading the hardcore “Hinduists” and Prime Minister Vajpayee who is less hardcore.

In a few months another five states will hold elections. If the BJP repeats these results, many fear it will be disastrous to the entire nation.

Terrie Albano contributed to this article. The author can be reached at pww@pww.org