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Gujarat’s ‘Successful Experiment’

By Arvind Rajagopal

Open Democracy
26 July, 2003

“The Gujarat experiment is a success,” declared Ashok Singhal, after the massacre of over 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the election of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He and other BJP leaders went on to assert that this ‘success’ would be replicated all over India.

Its recent defeat at the polls earlier this month in Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere has confounded this prediction. But the apprehension is acute that the BJP will try to translate further violence into votes in Madhya Pradesh, in Rajasthan and elsewhere where elections are forthcoming. How should we understand the normalisation of political violence in the world’s biggest democracy today? In the western media, Hindu–Muslim violence in India is regarded largely as an internal matter, the latest manifestation of an endemic and unchanging problem. Pankaj Mishra, for example, writing in the New York Times on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death on 31 January, has made a direct connection between his assassination by a Hindu fanatic in 1948 and the recent wave of political violence in Gujarat (‘The Other Face of Fanaticism‘, New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2003). Interviewing the brother of Gandhi’s assassin, Gopal Godse, Mishra quotes him as saying that India has finally turned its back on Gandhi and come close to embracing his brother’s vision.

This view of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism takes no account of the changed political context. Rajeev Bhargava avoids this fatalistic interpretation. He suggests we look to the experience of globalisation for causes of the Gujarat massacre; to the disorientation, the weakening of traditional boundaries and the ‘generalised egoism’ brought by economic success.

Extending this argument to a larger view of globalisation and its effects, Tom Nairn has argued that the doctrine of free trade, with its ‘absurdly parched philosophy of humanity and society’ has been a key factor in the changing character of political violence.

I would go further. In India at least, the threat of genocide only appears like an atavistic throwback. In fact, it is a thoroughly contemporary response to international events, such as the war on terror. It has been refashioned as a strategy of electoral politics and benefits from improved communication technologies. Its advocates skilfully negotiate the gaps between English and regional language debates, and exploit their critics’ inability to do so.

Hindu nationalism may be murderous, but it is also worldly and requires careful political analysis, not just denunciation. The worst of it is that this claim of an unchanging identity is all too often assumed, even by critics and opponents. As a result, the adaptation of mass murder to electoral politics does not become exposed as the bizarre mutant of democracy that it is.

Stirring the violence

In Gujarat last December, for example, the Hindu nationalist BJP state government won elections campaigning on national security and Hindu pride. The two issues were interwoven: Hindu assertion, backed by state terror, was the guarantee against the threat of Muslims, who in this view were all Pakistani agents.

Never before had elections at the state level been fought on a national issue, with such a deft appeal to regional identity at the same time. The international panic about Islamic terror has been projected on to domestic events, to make greatly enlarged claims for local politics. And such is the momentum of this rhetoric that even its opponents watch their words.

The Gujarat election followed the burning of a train compartment containing 58 Hindus, many of them Hindu militants by a Muslim crowd in February 2002. Violence swept across Gujarat, in an orchestrated series of ‘revenge’ massacres.

During the violence, those who sought police help were told, “We have no orders to save you,” in the words of a Human Rights Watch report, and had to confront mobs of up to 10,000 people alone. The violence was remarkable for its brutality, and for the intensity of media scrutiny accompanying it. For once, no one, at least in Gujarat, could say they did not know who was behind the violence. This itself signalled a momentous change from previous politics.

The main opposition party, the Congress Party, has ruled the country for forty years. It claimed it was opposing the BJP on strictly secular principles, but confined such views largely to speeches in New Delhi. In Gujarat, the Congress leader was a decades-long member of the hardcore Hindu militant group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Corps). The campaign platform was cow protection, a staple of conservative Hindu politics. The Congress candidate against the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi demanded that a Ram temple be built in Ayodhya, the erstwhile campaign promise of the BJP.

Illustrating this split, the Congress election manifestos in English and in Gujarati were completely different. The English document copiously defended secularism, diversity and religious tolerance, while the Gujarati manifesto studiously avoided any mention of these things.

The Congress Party’s manifesto for the Gujarat elections demanded ‘a white paper on the Godhra episode’, and called the polls a ‘battle for the soul of India’. But the Gujarati newspapers did not report this, because no mention was made of it in the Congress party manifesto in Gujarati. The Gujarati manifesto, instead, referred to a battle between ‘humanity’ and ‘demons’, the latter being Hindu nationalist argot for Muslims.

A Congress spokesman explained the difference between manifestos as a ‘mistranslation’. In fact, a social divide was reflected here, between secularism’s advocates, mainly English-speaking, and the Gujarati reading public. The ‘mistranslation’ was a routine one, only revealed in an Indian Express news dispatch, in a report which only Anjali Mody of The Hindu followed up.

Paradoxes of the new politics

There has always been a split between the hurly burly of local campaigning and the lofty debates of national politics, maintained precisely through the gulf between English and regional languages. English is the language of statecraft and secularism, while regional languages such as Gujarati are more porous to local cultural forces, partly because they escape scrutiny from metropolitan intelligentsia.

But improved communications, including cell phones, cable and satellite television, now allow national politics to beam into towns and villages directly, bypassing local intermediaries. This is both a problem and an opportunity, exposing the hypocrisies of national leaders but publicising their statements too.

The BJP, for many years in opposition against the erstwhile-ruling Congress Party, has defined the terms in which this split public can be reconstituted. They have aligned their national politics with the more communal campaigns at the local level, using the power of the religious image to bypass the gulf in language and literacy. Simultaneously, the inability of their opponents to bridge this gap has been critical for their success. In the process, they have come to dominate the rhetorical field of politics. In a poor country where Hindus are 80 per cent of the population, arguments for state protection of minorities have been hard-pressed to withstand Hindu chauvinism’s assault. Deliberately engineered riots against Muslims have been an indispensable tool in this connection. Together with vicious rumour mongering, which a state government is well placed to carry out unopposed, fear and suspicion resulting from violence project a deeper divide than actually exists between the religious communities.

Paradoxically, these new and violent forms of politics, then, result not from poor communication or undemocratic politics. They depend on improved communication, and are oriented to electoral politics and popular consent. By synchronising local with national campaigns, they reap the benefits of synergy, galvanising local volunteers with the excitement of participation in nationwide conversations, and generating political brand images that are reproduced from state to state. The appeal to lower castes, long subject to benign neglect or worse, can be exhilarating, especially to the youth amongst them.

This is also a short-term game of diminishing returns, tearing away at the tissues of society in order to win elections. For all its success in dominating political rhetoric, the BJP’s record of governance is so poor that it currently controls only two of the twenty-two states in the Indian union, one of which is Gujarat. It has taken all of this carnage (over 2000 dead, community relations wrecked, and billions of rupees in damage) to win one state election.

The threat of replicating the Gujarat ‘experiment’ all over India is one that the BJP is clearly eager to act on, in the assembly elections due in several Indian states later this year. Part of the problem in responding to this threat is that its opponents have not presented credible alternatives, or been able to operate simultaneously at local and national levels with the same dexterity as the BJP. This is a set of issues distinct to current politics; to extrapolate it from Hindu nationalism fifty years ago misses all the developments during this time.