The Gujarat state election has probably been handed over to Narendra Modi’s BJP on a platter. The row kicked up by other parties and the media — with Sonia Gandhi calling the BJP “merchants of death” — is working entirely to Modi’s advantage. The violation of human rights, which worries those outside Gujarat, worries Gujarati Hindus very little. They are more worried by Islamic militancy, and support killing in fake encounters to overcome it.
Modi’s initial strategy of trying to get re-elected on a platform of fast economic development looked shaky. But after the Sohrabuddin row, the election has been transformed into a Hindu-Muslim issue, and also been given a Gujaratis vs outsiders angle. Thus, unwittingly, the well-meaning media and secular parties have ensured his re-election.
After the mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, Modi is reviled by secularists. But he is also a good administrator and a relatively clean politician. He has helped Gujarat attract a lot of investment and become India’s fastest-growing state. But this investment has been mainly in capital-intensive industries (like the oil refineries of Reliance and Essar) that yield relatively few jobs or multiplier effects. This sort of economic growth does not win elections in a largely rural country.
Meanwhile, consumer price inflation remains high. This typically leads to incumbent parties being booted out. Earlier this year, the ruling parties were beaten soundly in Punjab, Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh. On this logic, Modi should have been in mortal danger in Gujarat.
Anti-incumbency is a strong trend even in the absence of inflation. Four-fifth of incumbents in India get voted out. The BJP has won the last three elections in Gujarat. To win four elections in a row is exceedingly rare in India. So, Modi should have been hard-pressed to win yet again. But he looks like succeeding because the communal polarisation he engineered — which is now buttressed by well-meaning outsiders — looks strong enough to overcome anti-incumbency.
People outraged by Modi’s remarks on Sohrabuddin are calling for legal action. But it is far from clear that he has actually transgressed the law. The Election Commission has sent him a notice on inciting communal hatred, after which he has stopped mentioning Sohrabuddin directly. But he achieves the same end by attacking Sonia Gandhi for her “merchants of death” remark, saying that she and her partymen are the real merchants of death who are soft on terrorists, and refuse to hang Mohammed Afzal, the militant given a death sentence by the Supreme Court for the attack on Parliament.
Modi appeals to the Hindu vote by saying that Islamic terrorists have killed 5,617 Indians in the last three years, but only one has died in Gujarat, showing how well the BJP protects Hindus. The Congress has repealed POTA, the draconian law used by Modi to incarcerate Muslims without trial. It authorised jail sentences on the basis of confessions, which are easily extracted by torture. Modi says the repeal of POTA shows that Congress is soft on terrorism.
He has appealed to Gujarati pride, saying critics are trying to defame Gujarat state, not just him personally. He is factually on firm ground in saying that political parties who have resorted to extra-judicial killings galore in other states are hypocrites in trying to portray Gujarat as a den of sin.
In Punjab, upholding civil rights or the rule of law did not end the Sikh militancy. On the contrary, such tactics were useless against the militants. Sikh terrorism was finally quashed by state terror, by extra-judicial torture, kidnapping and murder. Some who spearheaded that state terror are now lauded as heroes.
In Kashmir, Indian troops and police have committed atrocities galore. Most parties (and most Indians) regret this but see it as an inescapable side-effect of the battle against militants. However, the very parties and persons complicit in atrocities in Kashmir claim to be outraged by atrocities in Gujarat. Modi is quick to exploit the double standard.
The Communist parties have ignored civil rights and the rule of law in their recent “re-capture” of Nandigram. Earlier, Naxalite militants threatened West Bengal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Congress and CPM colluded in crushing the insurgents through extra-judicial means. Naxalism was not quashed by the rule of law, but by state terror. The winners of that struggle were lauded for bringing peace. Yet, says Modi, the same people dare criticise similar tactics in Gujarat.
Now, I can defend state terror in the other states on the ground that it was unavoidable in extreme situation. I can say it is indefensible in Gujarat, which is not reeling under Islamic terrorism, no matter what Modi may claim. Yet, the Gujarati voter is unlikely to make such fine distinctions.
Sonia Gandhi is accurate in calling Modi and his satraps merchants of death. But since so many Gujarati voters view these very merchants of death as extra-judicial protectors of Hindus, the accusation may work to Modi’s advantage. Just as it did in the last election.