Vol. 4 Num 201 Thu. December 18, 2003  

Behind the saffron surge: Anti-incumbency or Hindutva?

The five Assembly election results represent a handsome gain for the BJP and a setback for the Congress, barring in Delhi. For the first time, the BJP has wrested power in three states together. Its victory in Madhya Pradesh was widely expected.

What was unexpected (Mr Vajpayee's term), indeed astounding, was the BJP's majority in the Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh Assemblies. Most polls went wrong here.

Equally remarkable was the collapse of the Congress's Adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) and Dalit (Scheduled Castes) bastions in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The states together have 99 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The BJP won 77 of these, the Congress only 16. The BJP also increased its Dalit votes in MP and Rajasthan.

The results will affect the balance between secular and communal forces in the run-up to next year's Lok Sabha elections. The saffron surge cannot be arrested unless secular parties confront the BJP programmatically and comprehensively -- not just on Hindutva.

What explains the BJP's showing? MP is a straightforward case. There, the difference in the Congress-BJP vote-share was under 2 percent in 1998. Anti-incumbency, and dissatisfaction with the state of bijli, sadak and paani (the new "BSP") produced a 9 percent anti-Congress vote-swing.

Two factors magnified the effect. The new tribal Gondwana Ganatantra Party ate into Congress votes. And Hindutva played a role.

Contrary to propaganda, the elections weren't only about governance and "development". The BJP's campaign was rich with Hindutva symbolism, e.g. Ms Uma Bharati's saffron robes. Mr Narendra Modi spewed Hindutva venom in 40 meetings in the three states.

Equally important was Mr Digvijay Singh's gau-mataa-style soft-Hindutva with visits to countless temples. When asked to choose between soft-Hindutva and the genuine article, the electorate opted for the second -- as in Gujarat.

Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh results can't be explained in terms of "development". Mr Ashok Gehlot, with his excellent drought management and creation of 7 million-days' employment, was strong on development. As were Mr Ajit Jogi's road-building and school programmes.

Detailed analysis by Dr Yogendra Yadav at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, suggests that a higher percentage (51-to-57) of people were satisfied with the Congress's performance than dissatisfied (36-to-39 percent) in the two states. They rated it higher on "good leadership" and "controlling corruption".

The BJP's win arises from three factors: caste, election micro-management and Hindutva.

In Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the BJP built successful alliances with Rajputs, Jats and Adivasis and, to an extent, Dalits. In Rajasthan, it won half the 52 Jat-belt seats and in Chhattisgarh 70 percent of the ST seats.

More important was the BJP's shrewd micro-management, choice of candidates, focused campaigning, galaxy of speakers, Ms Vasundhara Raje's feudal appeal, encouragement of spoilers, and getting voters to booths manned by bureaucrats willing to "guide" them with election voting machines.

The Congress showed itself lacking in unity, energy and tact.

The BJP's micro-management paid off in the campaign's final phase, through a 4 percent vote-swing. In Rajasthan, the BJP through a pollster's leak identified 39 "marginal" constituencies. It lavished resources upon them, and propped up "independents".

In Chhattisgarh, the BJP gained handsomely thanks to the Nationalist Congress's 7 percent vote. The NCP damaged the Congress in 30 constituencies. Absent the NCP, the Congress would have won 67 of Chhattisgarh's 90 seats.

This election's backdrop is the RSS's long-term brainwashing and "re-conversion" programmes in tribal areas through the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram.

Hindutva isn't just about Ayodhya or Article 370. It's also an appeal to (false) identities and chauvinist nationalism. Hindutva issues weren't openly invoked in these elections. But hundreds of RSS-VHP cadres, despatched from Gujarat and Maharashtra, raised them during door-to-door campaigning.

The BJP's Hindutva connections were on full display at swearing-in ceremonies.

Sadhus and Ram Janmabhoomi stalwarts, including VHP vice-president Giriraj Kishore and Nritya Gopal Das, blessed Ms Bharati under the approving gaze of Messrs L.K. Advani and M.M. Joshi amidst Jai-Shri-Ram chants. And who should be by Ms Raje's side in Jaipur but Mr Narendra Modi himself?

The message was clear. Interestingly, both Ms Bharati and Raje entered the Lok Sabha in the Advani-led mandir-dominated 1989 election.

As Mr Advani put it in a December 7 interview to The Times of India, Hindutva has now "taken different forms like cross-border terror".

Two questions arise. Has the BJP morphed into an "umbrella" party, accommodating diverse groups? And has it liberated itself from the sangh parivar and become a "normal" party which mobilises around development, social welfare, etc.?

The firm answer to both must be no. BJP influence has penetrated OBCs in MP, Adivasis in Chhattisgarh and Jats in Rajasthan. But its core-support remains narrowly upper-caste, its ideology elitist. Its dependence upon the sangh is unchanged.

The BJP hasn't abandoned Hindutva. It has only changed ways of using it. It remains dedicated to transforming India into a Hindu nation.

The Congress party is shell-shocked. It was complacent and failed to build tactical alliances with the BSP, NCP and other secular parties. Nor did its cadres go out and mobilise people.

With alliances, the Congress would have won in Chhattisgarh, and come within striking distance of the BJP in Rajasthan (in a hung Assembly). And it would have greatly limited its losses in MP.

The Congress has failed to cultivate second-rank national-level leaders. The way it has treated Ms Siela Dixit is disgraceful.

The Congress is in deep leadership crisis. It doesn't offer an alternative vision to BJP-style chauvinist nationalism. Unless it projects alternatives on this, on globalisation and privatisation, and on Hindutva, it cannot counter the BJP.

This calls for radical change. The Congress must move Leftwards and build a broad coalition of progressive forces. This alone can effectively challenge Hindutva. That's the highest priority today.

We must not allow loony Hindutva with its ugly and sectarian agendas to succeed. In the next election we must send the BJP packing.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.