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WITH the voters having spoken in Gujarat, can we hope that the high-decibel rhetoric which has so dominated headlines for the last nine months will come to an end? Even since the unfortunate day on 28 February, when a carriage of the Sabaramati Express was torched, incarcerating 48 ‘Ram bhakts’ on their return from Ayodhya, and triggering off one of the worst episodes of communal blood-letting in the state, discourse in the country has remained polarised. Little wonder that many saw the hustings in Gujarat as a fight for India’s soul.

Like all slogans, this one too was marked by hyperbole, creating visions of a resurgent, rampaging Hindutva in the event that the Modi led BJP won. Well it has, and resoundingly, its spectacular gains in the polarised terrain of central Gujarat far overshadowing the losses in regions less affected by the riots. Nevertheless, despite the gleeful pronouncements of VHP leader Praveen Togadia that India will become a Hindu rashtra in the next two years, the statement needs to be dismissed as mere rhetorical flourish.

Our reading of the electoral/political future of the country, at least till the general elections of 2004, depends crucially on how we assess the Gujarat verdict. The results, at least in hindsight, seemed never in doubt. To have expected the Congress, a party which had been lying dormant for close to a decade, and worse was marked by factionalism, to overcome in a few months the lethargy of the past and successfully combat a high voltage, polarising and fear and insecurity driven campaign of the BJP, seems in retrospect to have been wishful thinking.

And yet, so many of us bought into that hope, even after opinion and exit polls indicated a clear victory for Modi. Surely it was not all due to the fact that in the ‘secular, progressive camp’ Modi has acquired the status of a hate figure comparable to Hitler and Milosevic? Or was it the assessment that a strategy hinging on anti-incumbency, local caste calculations and what the media describes as ‘weak Hindutva’, would prove sufficient? Finally, is it that an alliance of Kamal Nath and Vaghela, both competent and amoral managers of electoral machines, was seen as a match for the Modi-Togadia combine?

A final assessment can be made only after a careful scrutiny of the detailed results, in particular the margins of victory/defeat in different constituencies. One fact, however, stands out. Converting the electoral battle into one of secularism and manavata versus communal fascism and the break-up of India, as sections of the media (both print and TV) were prone to do, painting the vast majority of Gujarati Hindus as bigots, and insufficiently engaging with fear and insecurity bred by terrorism in a border state marked by a history of communal violence only contributed to a voter polarisation. The BJP spin doctors are not far wrong when they gleefully remark that the Congress won their battle for them.

This does raise a serious quandary for the liberal mind. How is one to confront a hate-filled campaign without sacrificing the interests of the victims and survivors – for justice and dignity, peace and reconciliation? Not that the Congress, as the principal opposition, managed to do either. Would a head-on clash with the BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal, aggressively rubbishing their claim as ‘true’ protectors of both Hinduism and the ‘nation’ been better? How we resolve this quandry may well shape politics in the proximate future.

Attention is already shifting towards possible re-alignments in the BJP camp, on a possible resurgence of the hardliners with issues like Ayodhya, conversion and so on taking centre-stage. What happens to the NDA style coalitional politics if the BJP decides to go at it alone? What happens to a somewhat ‘discredited’ Vajpayee line of official moderation since it is clear that it is Narendra Modi who delivered Gujarat after a series of electoral debacles? Equally, how does the Congress rework itself to meet the challenges of the 2003 state elections, more so since it lost three crucial bye-elections in Rajasthan?

Many of us would like to believe now that the battle has been won, saner heads will prevail and the state BJP will return to basic issues of governance – growth, jobs, reconciliation. Narendra Modi’s statement that it may be possible to win elections without Muslims, one cannot rule without them, is seen as reflective of this thinking. Nevertheless politicians and political parties are loath to give up what they perceive to be a winning hand.

How these matters get resolved remains an open question. What one hopes is that when debating ‘weighty’ issues like political strategy, we do not once again relegate the victims/survivors to the backburner. Without reconciling the twin demands of justice and inter-communal harmony our claims as a civilized people remain suspect.

Harsh Sethi