Provincial elections in India rarely have an impact outside their borders, fought as they are on mainly local issues. But last week’s elections in the western state of Gujarat were seen as being of national importance.
Gujarat, the land where Mahatma Gandhi was born, was in the news earlier this year for a brutal genocide in which hundreds — nearly 2,000 according to some estimates — of Muslims were killed by marauding Hindu mobs in just over a week. It was not the fact of the killings itself, but the complicity of the state and its instruments that was shocking. Newspaper reports and more studied documentation of the pogrom by international agencies, as well as Indian citizen’s groups, have, in no uncertain manner, laid bare the role played by the state’s law-and-order machinery and senior elected officials, who held back police action and encouraged Hindu groups that were on a killing spree.
The ostensible reason for this dance macabre was the burning of a train car carrying Hindus in a small Gujarat town by a mob said to consist of Muslims. But there has been sufficient evidence to show that the avengers went about their task with clinical precision, targeting Muslim homes and shops in a manner that would have required much advance planning.
The chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi, who has drawn most of the ire of human-rights groups, was quoted as saying that “every action has an equal an opposite reaction,” which he later denied. But his subsequent actions showed that he had singularly failed to fulfill his duty to protect the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.
Mr. Modi’s immediate reaction a few weeks after the riots was to call for elections before they were officially due. The objective was clear: The deep religious polarization and the fear among the Muslim section of the population would ensure the success of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, giving it one more five-year term.
The BJP rules India as the head of a 20-party coalition and has successfully used Hindutva (Hinduness), a political expression of Hindu resurgence, as a plank to win power. From a pariah party with no friends, it became the single-largest party at the centre four years ago, largely appealing to Hindu chauvinistic sentiments in a land where secularism is enshrined in the constitution. For the BJP, secularism as it has been practised has been little more than appeasement of minorities (mainly of the 140 million Muslims in the country) and it wants the feelings of the over 80-per-cent majority Hindu population taken into account.
This formula worked for a short time, but soon after, in province after province, the BJP’s state units have lost power, mainly to the opposition Congress Party. The more moderate elements in the party acknowledge that the people are looking for good governance and are fed up with divisive issues.
For the hard-liners in the organization however, the party’s failures were precisely because it had forsaken its Hindutva platform. And Gujarat provided a good experiment to see if hard-line Hinduism retained its potency.
Mr. Modi’s campaign focused on Islamic terrorism, which he blamed on neighbouring Pakistan and then warned the populace that they would not be secure if they voted for any other party. The implication was clear: The state’s half-million Muslims were the fifth column of Islamic terrorists who were not to be trusted and would spread terror among the Hindus unless kept down by a strong hand.
The message went over hugely and the BJP has returned with a two-thirds majority, trouncing the Congress and other parties. It has done its best in the areas were the riots were at their worst. In its campaign, the BJP got a lot of help from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), a well-funded international body (it has branches in Canada, too) whose sole aim is to make India a Hindu state and which has also been indicted for the role it played in the rioting.
Mr. Modi’s performance has impressed party elders, and with a handful of other provincial elections next year and the general elections the year after, the BJP, whose popularity has been slipping, is again rejuvenated. The moderate elements in the party, including perhaps Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who have pleaded in the past for national harmony, may well be swept aside by the next generation, which is impatient with old notions of secularism or even constitutional niceties. A new, more virulent form of majoritarianism and ubernationalism may now be seen in India.
It is not merely the BJP that could undergo an upheaval; it could mean bad news for the country’s minorities, too, who have long been taunted for their alleged extraterritorial loyalties. But most of all, if this means tampering with secularism, the Gujarat results could end up changing the destiny of India.
Sidharth Bhatia is a Toronto-based commentator on South Asia and an associate press fellow of Woflson College, Cambridge University.