Saffron blight

The BJP’s rout in the Assembly polls marks a major setback for the 
Sangh Parivar’s agenda

The rout of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly elections in north India last month marks a major 
 setback not only for the Vajpayee government in power at the Centre, but possibly, also for the long term trajectory of its ideological programme. The poll itself was inevitably dominated in a manner reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s comeback bid in 1980, by the rise in prices of essential commodities in general and onions in particular. 
But, this was only one facet of the campaign. The question common to the three states in the Hindi belt was whether or not they considered the BJP a credible governing party. The answer was in the negative, not only in Delhi and Rajasthan, but even in Madhya Pradesh where the Congress easily won back power. 

Given the context of the recently concluded polls, the issues of sectarianism or pluralism were not in the forefront of public debate. This was in marked contrast to the poll scenario in some of these same states five years ago. But then, that was a time when the dust had hardly settled after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in 1992. The saffron party under Advani was a power on the rise and its own ideological agenda, in its raw, undiluted form, was up before the electorate. Since that rout, the parivar has put forward a different shade of saffron. 

Even when they agree on the essence, Advani and the parliamentary leader of the party since 1996, Vajpayee, do have marked differences in terms of image and style. In that sense, the rejection of the organisation by the voter marks, if not the end, at least a serious failure for the more pragmatic or less strident approach. What happens in the coming months will be worth watching.

For the Congress, the recovery of its traditional vote base among the minorities must be especially satisfying. This was most clearly evident in Delhi. Way back in 1983, which was the last local poll it won in the city, it had co–opted the Hindutva agenda and, for the first time since independence, won the tacit backing of sections of the sangh parivar. That was the road that led on to the massacres of Sikhs in November 1984, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It also culminated in the bid to appease Hindu as well as Muslim sectarian sentiments through the Eighties and the early Nineties. 

These results are the first indicator that the Congress’ apologies for those events, however inadequate, have begun to be appreciated by at least a section of the affected persons. In Delhi, the party won in five of the six seats where Sikhs make up over 6 per cent of the population (the state average). The Janata Dal vanished off the map, with two of its ex–MLAs fighting on a Congress ticket; one of them, has became a minister. 

The return of Muslims has been accompanied by the forging of new links with the Dalits. Besides, the Congress  remains a multi–class party which did well even among communities associated with trade or education, linked to the saffron platform from the days of the Jana Sangh. One major factor in this was the inability of the latter to hold together such an umbrella like alliance. Each of the three chief ministers chosen by the ruling party had a distinctive appeal: Khurana for the Partition Punjabis, Sahib Singh for the Jats and other inhabitants of the 360 odd villages on the outskirts, and Sushma Swaraj for the upwardly mobile elite. As it turned out, all three saw their constituents bolting the camp.

The picture in both Rajasthan and MP was different. In both states, the Congress has all along remained more broad–based in its social composition than it had been in Delhi or UP in the last decade or so. The Hindu card never quite left the grasp of the sangh or its political affiliate, the BJP.  But, even in Rajasthan, the collapse of the base of the BJP had to be seen to be believed. Look at a map of the state and you find it has no MLAs at all even from the Kota division, an old BJP bastion, and only one seat each, in the cities of Jaipur and Udaipur.  

Except in 1990, when it got a fourth of the popular vote, the BJP has not done so badly in recent times. Only one in three voters put their mark on the lotus symbol. Not only Dalits, but adivasis and women in rural areas, even middle class groups and the urban poor moved away from the party. The increase in atrocities against women became an issue that cut across class lines. Its record of rule has been such as to cause the party’s rout even in Ajmer, a city that had stayed awake in 1990 to receive the rath of Lal Krishna Advani on his way to Ayodhya from Somnath.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress and the BJP had to contend with the rise of new social forces, in particular with the expansion in recent years of Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Few realise that in terms of social profile, central India is more akin to parts of the Southern peninsula than the Gangetic plain. Tribals make up 23 per cent of the population compared to an all India average of 8 per cent. Gonds alone account for one in 10 people. This time, as in 1993, most tribal reserved seats — there are 74 of them — went the Congress way. The projection of S.L. Patwa, chief minister, 1990–92, brought back memories of his rule, when the BJP government tipped the terms of trade of forest products against the gleaners of the forests and in favour of traders. 

Such identification with privilege is clearer still with the OBCs: they make up just under half the population. But, their level of representation in the Congress was increased, even higher this time than earlier, in ticket distribution. Their empowerment in the village panchayats via reservation also helped. Finally, the Dalits, though broadly in the Congress camp, have, with other marginal groups, moved the BSP way in the regions along the UP border in the north.

Did communal or secular issues matter at all? In the campaign, they did at least in two ways. The parivar hoped to cash in on the social work and the ‘shuddhi’ (Hindu conversion) campaigns in Chhattisgarh in the east and in areas like Jhabua in the west. The Jhabua rape case was played up, and the point emphasised that no RSS cadre had been involved. In turn, the Digvijay regime reminded voters that there had not been a single riot in the last five years. This was a subtle reminder of the Bhopal riots during Patwa’s ministry. What made a difference is that the Congress ministry has done a lot for the restoration of dilapidated places of worship — this has included mosques and temples, churches and gurudwaras.

The fact is that the secular credentials of the Congress were really on the test in Delhi. Here, it has begun to break with the past. But, the break is far from complete. 

In a post–poll discussion in Delhi University, AICC general secretary, Oscar Fernandes, reiterated that none of the 1984 accused would be given ministries nor would the party come in the way of the law. But, he was being less than frank: Sajjan Kumar, former MP for Outer Delhi, remains a power to reckon with in the party.  HKL Bhagat, once the uncrowned king of East Delhi, was on the campaign committee of the state Congress.  The struggle for justice for the victims of 1984 is not over and must continue. This is not a party political issue but one of the rights to life.

But, if at all there has been any renewal of the Congress’ link with the minorities, including Sikhs, with Sonia Gandhi, the BJP has only itself to blame. The Saraswati Vandana issue alarmed sections of the Sikhs and the attacks on Christians have raised fresh doubts about the Vajpayee regime’s ability to maintain law and order. In this situation, the Congress seemed to many a better bet.

What happens next, is the inevitable question. For the Congress, a more liberal cultural stance has begun to yield electoral dividends. It now needs to consolidate these gains and do so in those parts of north India where it has been reduced to a marginal presence. The fact that it was the runner–up in the Agra East assembly seat and  ate into Mulayam Singh Yadav’s vote banks is significant. For the Third Force groups, this raises fresh questions about their role in the polity. 

Contrary to what Advani says, they are not about to vanish. And if the Third Force groups do decline and it is to the Congress’ benefit,  it is clearly his own party that stands to lose the most. But, while the Left and the regional parties will be around for a long time, the Mandal–based parties of UP and Bihar will have to respond to the challenge of a rejuvenated Congress.

In a sense, this is a positive development, for, voters who reject the sangh parivar should surely have a range of choices. The people have shown that even in the absence of such a choice, the BJP can be kept out of power. But it is better to have a choice between parties that profess pluralism rather than between two large parties that promise different kinds of communal agendas. More than all this, the message from the voters in Madhya Pradesh indicates that a centrist party can combine the defence of pluralism with empowerment.

Archived from Communalism Combat, December  1998. Year 6, No. 49, Verdict



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