Earlier this year, Aijaz Ahmad sounded a note of alarm in the pages of Frontline magazine: â€œToday India faces the classic situation of a pre-fascist upheaval.â€ An anti-Muslim pogrom had left nearly a thousand Muslims dead in the western state of Gujarat. More than 120,000 Muslims had lost their homes. The pogroms were instigated and encouraged by the state Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, while law-enforcement agencies sat on their hands, and in some cases participated in the violence themselves.
Nevertheless, many observers, including this writer, regarded Ahmadâ€™s prognostication as somewhat alarmist. After all, the violence and the killing had failed to spread beyond Gujarat, and the BJPâ€”the Hindu nationalist party ruling the countryâ€”had been steadily losing steam in state elections elsewhere. A peace movement had emerged in the wake of the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998, and there were signs of the emergence of grassroots opposition to the BJPâ€™s communalist politics. The Hindutva agenda, it seemed, had lost the mass appeal that it had in 1992, when the BJP first swept into power riding a wave of Hindu chauvinism.
To cope with its declining electoral fortunes, the BJP vacillated. It tried to distance itself from the hardline elements in the Sangh Parivar, a â€œfamilyâ€ of organizations headed by the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Tensions between the stormtroopers of the Sanghâ€”from groups like the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-World Hindu Council), the Bajrang Dal and othersâ€”and its parliamentary wing, the BJP, began to grow.
In part, this explains why the BJP shifted its focus dramatically over the last couple of years from the domestic scapegoating of Muslims to a militaristic belligerence towards Pakistan, bringing the subcontinent to the brink of an all-out war in April this year. The two are, of course, connected. The BJP gave the go-ahead to anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, whipped up anti-Pakistan sentiment over Kashmir, and called for â€œnational unityâ€ against this external enemy. Those who sympathized with the Kashmiris, and those who shared the same religion as most Pakistanis, could now be branded as â€œtraitorsâ€ and â€œterrorists.â€
The Gujarat election results, announced December 15, portend a frightening turn in Indian politics. The shame-faced, brazen, fascistic tactics and strategy of the Hindutva upsurge of 1992, seem to be making their way back. The BJP won a landslide victory in Gujarat, capturing 126 seats to gain an overwhelming majority over its nearest rival, the Congress Party, which won 51 seats. The BJP campaign was led by Narendra Modi himself, who defeated his opponent by a 75,331-vote margin in the Maninagar constituency.
Modi is a pracharakâ€”preacher or propagandistâ€”in the RSS. True to his reputation, Modi launched a vicious campaign of fear and intimidation, rallying the Hindu vote against the supposed threat of â€œMuslim terrorism.â€ His tactic was simple: convince the Hindu voters that they were under siege by the Muslim minority. Muslims form a mere nine percent of the population of Gujarat, and have borne the brunt of the violence since the Godhra incident. Modiâ€™s election campaign was thus little more than a platform for him and his Sangh followers to flex their street-level muscle. Using stormtrooper tactics, they succeeded in polarizing the electorate along communal lines. They also succeeded in sending a message to the BJP leadership: step in line, or you will be forced out of your own party. Modiâ€™s success in the elections has huge implications for the future of the BJP, and signals a likely shift towards a harder Hindutva strategy.
While the BJP government at the center was still figuring out how to respond to the sense of outrage against the pogroms that was sweeping the nation, Modi and his VHP cohorts wasted no time in upping the ante. Asserting in true Orwellian fashion that the stateâ€™s gaurav (pride) had been hurt by the Godhra killings, Modi launched his gaurav yatra early September. This 5,000-km march through the still smoldering villages of Gujarat sought to capitalize on simmering Hindu passions in preparation for the December elections.
Some commentators noticed that the gaurav yatra did not attract as much support as expected, and hoped that this signaled a waning of Modiâ€™s popularity in the state. However, the closest rival to the BJP was the Congress Party, long known for its own â€œsoft-saffronâ€ politics, and its opportunistic use of communal politics to win votes. It is no wonder then that Congress failed to provide a viable alternative to Modiâ€™s neo-fascist tactics. While many on the Left, including such respected commentators like Praful Bidwai, called for a relentless struggle against the RSS-BJP-VHP nexus in Gujarat, a real alternative was sadly absent in this election.
There is no doubt that the election victory has emboldened the fascists, both in Gujarat and nationally. The Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray (an open admirer of Hitler) said after the election results were announced: â€œHad Congress come to power in that state, entire Gujarat would have been turned into Godhra.â€ The VHP warned of a â€œstorm ahead which was not going to be limited to Gujarat.â€ According to an article in The Hindu, Praveen Togadia, secretary-general of the VHP, called for â€œdismemberingâ€ Pakistan and deporting all Bangladeshi immigrants. Even more frightening was a â€œdeath sentenceâ€ that Togadia declared on secularists: â€œAll Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence and we will leave it to the people to carry this out.â€ As reported on rediff.com, at a press conference in Jaipur on December 15, Togadia said â€œA Hindu Rashtra [nation] can be expected in the next two years … we will change India’s history and Pakistan’s geography by then.â€
This can only be read as a declaration of communal war, and it demands an adequate response. While thousands of people have joined demonstrations against communalism both within and outside Gujarat organized by the Left in recent months, their forces are small and fragmented compared with the tightly-knit VHP. The coming months will determine whether the Left, and the secular forces in general, can turn the tide of creeping fascism in India. This will require a sustained, grassroots mobilization that builds on the common grievances of the working classes, urban and rural, Hindu and Muslim, on a scale yet to be realized.
Ganesh Lal is an activist in Greensboro, NC, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker. He can be reached at [email protected]