Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who is widely regarded as having instigated the anti-Muslim pogroms in April 2001 in which thousands of Muslims were killed and at least 150,000 driven from their homes and land, was rewarded last month with a massive victory in the state’s elections. When the results were declared on December 15, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had increased its dominance in the state assembly by winning 126 of the 182 seats, up from 117 seats before the elections. The second-placed Congress party won just 51 seats.
The result, coming almost exactly 10 years after the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992, is a massive boost to the Hindu fascist movement that the BJP represents, and bodes ill for India’s Muslims. It confirms the fascists’ argument that the way to electoral victory in India is by playing on the Hindu majority’s hatred for Muslims, and by attacking the country’s Muslim minority. The fascists also link this argument to fears of Pakistan, which is routinely blamed for everything bad that happens in India.
This was precisely the tactic Modi used when the BJP’s fortunes were seen as being in general decline. While human-rights organizations and anti-fascist groups criticised him for his role in the anti-Muslim pogroms, he exploited the pogroms openly during his election campaign, posing as the only leader who could protect Gujarat’s Hindus,who comprise more than 80 percent of the population, from its Muslim minority, who, he said, are agents of Pakistan.
The BJP made its biggest gains in the areas where the anti-Muslim pogroms had been most intense, such as Ahmedabad. The only area to reverse the trend was Kutch, which was devastated by an earthquake two years ago, after which the BJP government was criticised severely for its failures to provide aid and relief.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Council), which is India’s leading Hindu fascist organisation, and which was heavily involved in Modi’s campaign, said after the elections that it was planning a national agitation to promote "Hindutva" (Hindu hegemony) in the rest of the country. VHP leader Praveen Togadia proclaimed during the post-election celebrations that "India will become a Hindu Republic within two years." Predicting further victories by Hindu nationalists beyond Gujarat’s borders, Togadia issued a chilling warning to those who oppose the Hindu agenda: "All opponents of Hindutva will get the death sentence and we will leave it to the people to carry this out," he said. After the pogroms last year, Togadia spoke of a "final settlement" of India’s "Muslim problem," echoing the language used by Germany’s Nazis to justify their anti-Jewish genocide in Europe before and during the second world war.
Having succeeded in Gujarat, the Hindu fascists are now expected to concentrate on the ten state elections scheduled to take place in 2003, and on India’s general elections, which are due to be held in 2004. The state elections include important states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, both currently ruled by Congress. The VHP is expected to lead anti-Muslim campaigns in both states in an attempt to repeat the BJP’s Gujarat success in these polls.
The VHP is also expected to put pressure on Atal Bahai Vajpayee, India’s prime minister, to pursue an even more overtly Hindu agenda. Despite his considerable pro-Hindu credentials, Vajpayee is regarded by many Hindus as too ‘moderate’. This is partly because his central government is based on an alliance with over 20 other parties, not all of which are communal in outlook. However, his performance has been disappointing to many Hindu fascists, who are now speaking openly of Modi as an alternative leader for the national party. Although Vajpayee and many of his closest allies were deeply involved in the destruction of the Babri mosque, which they used to reinforce their Hindu credentials, the credit they were given for this has been largely dissipated by their subsequent failure to permit the building of a Hindu temple in its place.
Vajpayee’s political performance is also regarded as disappointing. Except for the tiny enclave of Goa, the BJP has lost every state election since it came to national power in 1998. Gujarat is one of only three states that the BJP still controls, and Modi’s victory there — ending a run of 11 consecutive BJP defeats in state elections — gives him great influence in the party’s politics. The VHP is now expected to demand that Vajpayee act on three policies to prove his commitment to their cause. These are the building of a temple dedicated to the ‘god’ Ram on the site of the demolished Babri mosque; a total ban on the slaughtering of cows, which some Hindus regard as sacred; and the abolition of separate civil courts for India’s Muslims.
At the same time, the victory may also free Vajpayee to pursue some of his more unpopular policies, which he has been reluctant to push for fear of creating more problems for himself. As well as being a hardline Hindu heartland, Gujarat is one of India’s leading industrial regions, and is likely to be severely affected by India’s economic reform programme and privatisation plans, because these are likely to result in unpopular reductions in food and fuel subsidies. The fact that the BJP can win there, by appealing to Hindu nationalist feelings, despite the poor performance of the party in office, is likely to embolden Vajpayee to pursue potentially unpopular policies in the central government, in the hope that their effects can also be counter-acted by appeals to the Hindus’ basest instincts.
Another major feature of the Gujarat elections was the utter failure of the Congress to oppose the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. Traditionally seen as a bastion of India’s supposedly secular and liberal tradition, Congress also has a record of falling prey to Hindu communal tendencies in pursuit of electoral success. In Gujarat it seemed powerless to oppose Modi’s bandwagon, preferring to appeal to the same communal hatred by offering a softer version of Hindu nationalism, instead of taking a firm anti-communal stand and attacking Modi’s dismal performance in government, for example in his handling of Gujarat’s economy and administration of relief work after the recent earthquake and drought. When Shankersinh Vaghela, president of the Gujarat Congress party, bitterly described the BJP’s triumph as a victory for "aggressive Hindutva", others criticised him for trying to respond with "passive Hindutva" instead of aggressive secularism.
This election result is a major setback to Congress, which had been perceived as making a limited recovery after an appalling failure in India’s last general elections (1999). In Gujarat, most Muslims seem to have voted for it, as the only viable alternative to the BJP, albeit not a very attractive one. The same has tended to be true in other parts of India. However, under the weak leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, it remains in disarray. Gandhi’s main qualification for leadership is as a compromise candidate between the party’s various regional power bases, and the party’s performance in Gujarat suggests that it is unlikely to challenge the BJP’s central dominance in the 2004 elections, especially if the BJP maintains its momentum with successes in at least some of next year’s state elections.
At a time when the Hindu fascists’ anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim agenda is chiming well with the West’s global demonization of the Islamic movement, and with the global alliance against all political manifestations of Islam, the prospects of India’s Muslims look particularly grim.