The just concluded Gujarat Assembly elections have, interestingly, produced two winners – the BJP and the Congress. However, India as a secular, democratic nation was a big loser. The two principal political parties played the Hindutva card in a no-holds-barred manner to emerge victorious, caring little about its long-term consequences, as if the country's interests can be compromised when it comes to achieving the party’s primary objective – capturing power.
That the hard Hindutva of the BJP has trounced the soft Hindutva of the Congress in the battle of the ballot is not surprising. This is what was destined to happen at the end of the day. Congress strategists must remember that no party can defeat the BJP when the battle is fought with Hindutva as a weapon. As a result of the Hindutva tactics adopted by both the BJP and the Congress, unfortunately, the underlying message that has got conveyed to one and all is that Hindutva, though a divisive idea, has to get precedence over secular-democratic values when it comes to winning an election. A very sad development in a plural society like that in India, indeed!
The framers of the country's Constitution, wherever they are, must be weeping over the gory scenario that has emerged, but the BJP and the Congress are celebrating their achievements. The saffron party is happy having recaptured power with 99 seats even after being in government for 22 long years and the Congress feels satisfied with a score of 88 seats as it has significantly reduced the BJP's strength in the assembly with a powerful message that the ruling party's victory in the 2019 general elections has become doubtful.
The BJP has every reason to rejoice over its success in retaining power because Prime Minister Narendra Modi's prestige was at stake in his home-state. That the party's tally in the assembly has got reduced to 99, only seven votes more than the required number to form the government, hardly matters in such a situation. After all, the winner is the winner. The real threat of losing the 2019 elections that the BJP now faces from the Congress under Rahul Gandhi's leadership can be taken care of by the BJP party managers. This cannot be really worrying for the party that swears by development but does not hesitate in taking recourse to hard Hindutva as it did in Gujarat for ensuring electoral gains.
Modi not only visited temples but also brought in the sensitive Pakistan factor to exploit it to his advantage. The P-factor came into the picture when Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar hosted a dinner party on December 6 at his house in Delhi with Pakistan's ex-Foreign Minister Khushid Mahmud Kasuri being present on the occasion. Among the others present were former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, former Army chief Deepak Kapoor, former Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh and ex-diplomats Salman Haidar, TCA Raghavan, Sharat Sabharwal, K. Shankar Bajpai and Chinmaya Gharekhan. Bajpai, Raghavan and Sabharwal had served as India's High Commissioners to Pakistan. The dinner was followed by discussions, but Aiyar later on explained that the Gujarat polls did not find mention during the exchange of views, but nobody appeared bothered about the clarifications.
The next day the Ananta Centre, a Delhi-based think-tank, hosted a talk on "The Current State of India-Pakistan Relations" with Kasuri being present there. Modi saw in the whole thing Pakistan's 'hand' to influence the Gujarat polls, and this was bound to find an appeal among the masses. It is easier to win over the people's hearts by bringing in the P-factor in an election discourse. This was enough to help exploit people emotionally. The Prime Minister's appeal to voters had greater impact in the urban areas, and the result was that the BJP got the maximum seats from the cities and towns.
It was also reportedly highlighted that a Congress victory would lead to Ahmed Patel becoming the Chief Minister, which could not fit into the scheme of things in Gujarat. There was also the allegation of Pakistan being interested in Patel ruling over the state. This was not the end of it all. There was much more. The political discourse during the campaigning was brought to a level not expected of mature leaders, but it did happen with a view to garnering votes.
The Congress too contributed considerably to the campaigning coming to an absurd level. Rahul visited 20 temples besides the 30 rallies that he addressed after the elections were announced on October 25. Modi addressed 34 rallies with BJP chief Amit Shah speaking at 31 political rallies. Both Modi and Rahul ended their campaigning with visits to temples. When questions were raised about Rahul's caste credentials at some temples, the Congress leader asserted that he was a "janeu-dhari" Hindu, a Brahmin, and "a devotee of Lord Shiva". His supporters claimed that Rahul was a descendant of Parashuram, known as an avatar of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology.
The Congress strategists, perhaps, believed that the party would not be able to perform on expected lines without its leader, Rahul Gandhi, appearing in a soft Hindutva garb, though the party had the support of powerful 'patedar' leader Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor of the OBCs and Jignesh Mewani of the Scheduled Castes. The Congress, no doubt, did admirably well but found itself far away from power. How far Rahul's stress on his Brahmin credentials helped him in improving his party's position is difficult to assess, but the Congress party's excellent performance in the state's rural areas shows that there were more significant and meaningful factors other than Hindutva which came to the rescue of the grand old party. However, many political pandits believe that the BJP was bound to suffer in the villages because of lack of 'vikas' (development) in the rural areas, the negative impact of demonetisation, the GST issue, the BJP policies helping mainly the big business, jobless growth, etc.
In fact, there was no need to stoop to a low level of playing the soft Hindutva card, but Rahul did it as a case of over-reaction. And in the process, he contributed to the divisive cause of the BJP's Hindutva philosophy.
Now the question arises: will the 2019 elections be also fought with the use of Hindutva as a weapon? If this really happens, defeating the BJP may not be possible as the past experience shows. Are the Congress party managers listening?
(The writer is a former Deputy Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh.)
(Published on 26th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 52)