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Secular stakes in Gujarat elections

Praful Bidwai
Filed on October 31, 2007

WHEN Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi walked out of an interview with a television channel last week after being questioned about the 2002 carnage, he probably didn't realise he was committing a blunder. The walkout showed him as confused, shaky, yet arrogant and unreasonable.

This has gravely dented Modi's contrived image as a swashbuckling, super-confident leader.

As he prepares for electoral battle in December, Modi's falling image will extract a high price. Five years ago, Mod’s Bharatiya Janata Party won 70 per cent of seats in the Assembly despite (or because of?) the communal violence. Today, it appears more vulnerable than at any time during its 12-year tenure in Gujarat.

The vote-gap between it and the Congress narrowed from 10 percentage-points to three between 2002 and 2004, and may now get reversed.

Gujarat's elections will prove a national turning-point. If the BJP wins them, the result will greatly influence its leadership succession. In conjunction with the Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls-due in December, in which the BJP is expected to oust the Congress —it'll help stem losses in the next Lok Sabha elections. Losing Gujarat will be a massive setback for the BJP. That’ll set the stage for a long-overdue correction to the ghastly trend that brought about the violence of 2002, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were butchered.

This could herald the BJP's relegation to the political margins, where it belonged until the Ram temple campaign clicked in the late 1980s. This could transform Indian democracy.

Modi, is beset by enemies-mainly from his own sangh parivar . The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS, and significant sections of the BJP oppose him. The last comprise more than a dozen legislators, including two former chief ministers, a former union minister, and an ex-home minister. They are itching to defeat Modi. They have held about 80 rallies, including an unprecedented 300,000-strong one in Rajkot.

Beneath the dissidence lie shifts in the BJP's support-base. Two caste groups, Kolis and Leuva Patels, have moved away. The Kolis are among the state's largest cultivating castes. They voted massively for the BJP in 2002. By 2004, 55 per cent of their vote went back to the Congress.

The Patels dominate Gujarat's agriculture, small industries, and diamond polishing. Their vote is decisive in one-third of constituencies.

Both groups are upset with Modi because of his extremely abrasive style, and refusal to share the loaves and fishes of office.

Gujarat's tribal (Adivasi) community and civil society organisations (CSOs) too are angry anger with Modi. In 2002, the Congress got only 11 tribal seats to the BJP's 13. Now, important Adivasi organisations are taking on the BJP.

All this offers the Congress a chance to vanquish "Moditva", that diabolical combination of communalism, human rights violations, and extremely dualistic elitist policies.

Modi claims Gujarat is a high-performing state with all-round growth.

In reality, Gujarat is misgoverned, with unbalanced growth and warped development, in which 74.3 per cent of women and 46.3 per cent of children are anemic. Gujarat's per capita debt exceeds the ratio for UP and Bihar.

Gujarat continues to attract industrial investment not because of its policies but because of a historical accident-business groups invested there early on, and it has a petrochemicals cluster. As the official Human Development Report (2004) points out, "Gujarat has reached only 48 per cent of the goals set for human development". It lags behind thanks to "several distortions in [its] growth path", including agricultural stagnation. Its gains in literacy, education, health, nutrition, etc, are much lower than its GDP growth. Recent "deceleration in [its] achievements" is cause for "serious concern."

Gujarat is severely patriarchal. Its sex-ratio is 487:1000 in the 0-4 age-group and 571 in the 5-9 group (national averages, 515 and 632). Its health indices have dropped relative to other states and are barely higher than Orissa's. In social sector spending (as a proportion of total expenditure), Gujarat ranks a lowly 19 among India's 21 major states. The industries that have flourished the most in Gujarat are all highly polluting: poisonous chemicals-Vapi is the world's fourth most toxic hub — textile dyeing, shipbreaking, and diamond polishing, which turns young people blind. Gujarat hasn't still recovered from its mill industry's wholesale closure since the 1980s. In Gujarat, labour exploitation is extreme. On minimum wages, Gujarat ranks eighth among Indian states.

As for the claim that Gujarat is well-administered, its legislature's Public Accounts Committee has severely indicted the government for awarding contracts in major schemes without tenders, causing a loss of hundreds of crores. Tax breaks have cost Gujarat some Rs 15,000 crores.

Gujarat's law and order situation is appalling. Its religious minorities (including Christians) and Dalits suffer extreme discrimination and exclusion. More than 100 Dalits were murdered in Gujarat over the past three years. The harassment of hundreds of Muslims originally arrested under draconian anti-terrorism laws continues unabated — although these laws were repealed.

The Congress has a historic chance to inflict a stinging defeat on the BJP. To do this, it must offer an alternative vision, take a strongly secular line, build alliances with other anti-communal parties/groups, and run a spirited campaign with a wise choice of candidates, while keeping the BJP dissidents at an arm's length. The fight is winnable-and certainly worth winning.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in





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