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BJP win legitimizes Gujarat pogrom

December 18, 2002

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NEW DELHI: The stunning victory of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the assembly elections in India’s western state of Gujarat is a triumph of an aggressive, violent form of Hindu fundamentalism or fascism, and a shock defeat for pluralism, secularism, multiculturalism and democracy.

Not only does it legitimize the butchery of 2,000 innocent citizens in Gujarat in the anti-Muslim pogrom there early this year — it is liable to reshape Indian politics along extremely dangerous right-wing lines.

The international community must urgently take more serious, severe note of this BJP victory than it did of the weeks-long pogrom of Gujarat’s Muslims , which occurred with the state’s full complicity. It must not see the BJP’s win as an “expression of the popular will” and therefore worthy of ‘normal’ democratic recognition.

Tragically, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who planned and organized the pogrom beginning Feb 28, has nine months on reaped a rich harvest of hatred. His party bagged an unprecedented 51 per cent of the vote and 70 per cent of assembly seats in elections on Dec 12.

The election results overturn many established political trends. The Indian voter tends to judge a party by its performance in power, especially in respect of public services, corruption and accountability. If found wanting, the incumbent is severely punished. Incumbency is a major electoral disadvantage.

Despite the existence of a small support base for extremist ethnic-chauvinist politics, India’s electorate has never voted seriously for it, nor rewarded violence used for political ends. Typically, caste and class issues play a larger role in electoral choice than religion. Caste equations did not favour the Gujarat BJP.

In Gujarat, the party’s performance was appalling. Domestic growth ground down from eight per cent a year to barely one per cent. Water and power shortages became more acute. Unemployment skyrocketed. And corruption flourished.

Owing to these factors, the BJP was widely expected to be routed in the elections — until February. Then, genocidal madness took over.

Rampaging mobs, unrestrained by Modi’s police, burned, raped and looted at will, killing 2,000 people, displacing half a million and destroying property worth $2 billion. There was a total breakdown of constitutional legality for months under Modi’s ethnic cleansing.

Modi ensured that crimes against humanity would not be properly registered, and the guilty not prosecuted.

The pogrom stunned India, spurring a demand for Modi’s dismissal. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee refused.

Modi ran a campaign driven by sectarian venom and ethnic hatred. He equated Islam with fundamentalism, and blamed the main opposition party, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress, of maligning Gujarat’s ‘fair name’. This created sharp polarization along ethnic-religious lines.

The polarization’s effects are starkly evident in the election results. The BJP’s biggest gains come precisely from the central and northern regions that witnessed the greatest anti-Muslim violence — there it got 52 out of 65 seats.

Modi’s brazenly Hindu-sectarian and xenophobic appeal, directed sharply at Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins, paid rich dividends.

Never before has an Indian politician made such handsome electoral gains — literally on dead bodies. Modi has emerged as the mascot or torchbearer of a muscular, hardline version of Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalism. In the Gujarat campaign, he sidelined Vajpayee and his hardline deputy, Lal Krishna Advani.

Until now, Vajpayee alone in the BJP was regarded as a crowd-puller and vote-catcher. Now, the old, ailing leader has a youthful, energetic rival in Modi, one unburdened by political decency or etiquette.

Modi has given the BJP the hope that it can revive itself and win the national election due 2004 — which it is widely expected to lose thanks to its unpopular right-wing economic and social politics.

But the BJP will be tempted to use the Modi formula of violence and polarization in assembly elections due next year in seven states, including the Delhi capital territory. If the formula works in some of these, the party would want to try it at the national level.

This means the BJP could stoop to fomenting religious hatred and sectarian violence. Its right wing regards Gujarat as a successful ‘laboratory’ of violence. This has frightful implications for Indian society and politics.

In some of these states, Muslims are a tiny minority and very vulnerable to Hindu extremists. There are Muslim baiters in the Indian police and civil services who might shield the extremists.

Internally for the BJP, the hardline, pro-Modi group will try to take over not just the organizational apparatus, but its parliamentary wing too. This group could soon displace Vajpayee and co-opt Advani.

It is likely to be backed by other hard-right elements in the extended Hindu-fundamentalist family, including party founder and ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swasevak Sangh or National Self-help Organization, and others best described as the Hindu Taliban.

These groupings have grown in political weight vis-a-vis the Vajpayee leadership. They want the party to establish a Hindu state, in which the religious minorities are politically disenfranchized or become second-class citizens.

The effete, compromised Vajpayee leadership is unlikely to be able to withstand their onslaught. Vajpayee’s capitulation will lead to a hardening of official policies on a range of issues.

For instance, Modi is particularly hostile to reconciliation with Pakistan, and extremely pro-Likud Party and anti-Palestinian. Under his line, India may also support an unwarranted war on Iraq.

If the hardliners prevail, India will further step up military spending, accelerate nuclear and missile development, and adopt tough policies towards neighbours. It will play a retrograde role in world affairs and a domineering role in South Asia.

The world’s powers, especially the United States, took a relatively soft, benign view of the Gujarat carnage. The European Union issued a demarche expressing concern. The United States’ indulgent attitude toward Vajpayee’s inaction on Gujarat was the result of three factors.

First, historically, the BJP has always been pro-United States. In recent years, it has aligned itself with US interests, especially in business.

Second, the United States would like to consolidate an unequal, asymmetrical alliance or ‘strategic’ partnership with India, at least partly to contain China in the long term.

Third, there is a powerful pro-BJP lobby among the two million people of Indian origin who live in the United States.

The US-based Campaign to Stop Funding Hate recently published a report tracing the donations collected by the India Development and Relief Fund, from big companies like Cisco, and transferred to BJP front organizations. Britain’s Channel 4 television and the Charity Commission too have found links between such groups and Hindu charities in Britain.

These shadowy links are an integral part of the international network run by an organization which drums up xenophobic hysteria for political gains. It is time the international community took note of these links, and contributed to domestic secular efforts to stop the Hindu-fascist juggernaut and bring the guilty of Gujarat to book.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.