An interesting interview with Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst, on the upcoming state elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan:
JO: What do you think the BJP's chances are in the upcoming elections?
MR: At this moment I would say that they can bank on substantial dissatisfaction with the union government on the question of inflation, which is very important in the states going to polls. Most of these are states with very large numbers of poor people. Inflation also happens to bite the middle class in a significant way. Second, I do think they gain from the redistricting. The way the boundaries of the seats have been redrawn increases the weightage of the towns and urban seats, and in the most recent elections in most of these states were as long ago as 2004, and with the exception of Delhi in the northern states they did well—you know Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. So I think they've got a bit of an edge.
JO: Assuming they do well, does that carry over into next year's general election?
I really don't think it does carry over, and I think the reason is very specific. Both in 2003 and 1998 the party which did well in precisely these elections triggered early general elections; in '98 the Congress did well in most of these states and it precipitated a crisis which led to the downfall of the Vajpayee government. In 2003, Vajpayee read the results in a certain way—at least the party read the results in a certain way; we have reason to believe he was not so clear—and you know in both of these cases we saw that the advantage in these states did not carry over into the general elections. There are two reasons. These states are fairly atypical of vast regions of India, because primarily both the two big parties are the contenders for power. This is not true in the entire Gangetic basin, which is where most Indians live, and it's not true in significant parts of South India, like Andhra and Tamil Nadu. The other thing is that up to now these states have not had a strong third force. Not in the last two decades at least. In the absence of a third force, a regional party, a strong lower caste or marginal caste party, the results are very skewed. So I'm not sure they are that typical of the country.
Having said that, a good performance in this election will definitely give an enormous morale boosting shot to whoever does win. They will be raring to go for the general election. In that sense it's very important. It's important for party morale and the mood in the leadership, perhaps less so as an indicator of where the country is going.
JO: So it kind of helps you keep your party members in line and maybe in forming alliances?
MR: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think to both these parties these are among the very few states – there are 6 to 8 states depending on how you count them – where the fight is between these two. In the rest of India, either neither is in contention or only one is in contention or a major regional force is in contention in a very important way. So of course it helps them in terms of their bargaining power and standing. I also think it's an important election because it's the first election since this economic crisis has struck—the slowdown, as opposed to food price inflation. We will have some sense, particularly in Rajasthan, which has a small but significant industrial base, so is the slowdown really biting, particularly in the towns, export-oriented units? Is globalization hurting? If you look at Madhya Pradesh, one of the major products of Madhya Pradesh is soybeans. Now soybean prices have crashed. I think – I don't recall the figure, you can check it – I think it went from 43 to 26 or something like that. It's a huge crash and it happened after the sowing. Now farmers are set to take a huge harvest in, and they're not sure what to do, because even if they sell all of it it will be at a very substantial loss. This of course takes us to the next question: Who are they going to blame for their plight? Will it be the state government or will it be the center?
JO: Or will they understand that the government has no control over that [issue]?
MR: Even if the government has no control, the government can definitely do something. Government has eased credit for a lot of big industries, and it has done it very fast. I guess in the current situation nobody can complain about that. But there are other sections [of society] that are going to say, 'Why him and not me?'
MR: Of course, of these states Delhi is also very important. It's a small state, and it's a very pampered Union Territory with lots of federal funds and so forth. But I still think it's important. The Congress has ruled Delhi for 10 years, which believe me none of us ever thought was possible. This is a natural BJP city – at least the city of the '60s and '70s, which was the time that Advani and Vajpayee really rose to their present stature. So I think for the BJP taking Delhi back is very, very important. It is not to be measured in terms of numbers. It's symbolically of enormous significance to them, and they've put a lot into the battle for Delhi.
JO: So that would again be sort of a moral victory, or would it have any other....
MR: ...Definitely! No, it has. You see, people don't realize it, but Delhi's per capita income over the last decade has outstripped Mumbai's for the first time in history. It's got a huge middle class, it's got an incredibly large consumer base. It's incidentally also got a very large number of poor people in the unorganized sector. So it might give you a sign of where urban India is going. And because it is 14 million people, and there are people in Delhi drawn from virutally all the parts of India—I'm a South Indian; people don't know this but there are 2 million Southerners in Delhi; it's a huge number—so I wouldn't say it's a microcosm but it is a city of some significance to them. Also, whoever takes Delhi will preside over the Commonwealth Games, and you know, for politicians those things do matter. I think it's a very important election also because it's the first after these recent bomb blasts.
JO: Apart from the bomb blasts – there have been bomb blasts all over – but also this linking of Hindu extremists to terrorism. What impact do you think that will have?
MR: Who knows? It could go either way. One way it could be is that there's a deep abhorrence of these groups, and these are fringe groups but some of them have affiliations with elements within the BJP. And some elements of the BJP—particularly their party president who's gone out of his way to defend these people.
JO: So in one way it may turn into a sort of referendum on that issue [of Hindu extremism]...
MR: They're trying very hard to make it that. I think the battle plan from the BJP point of view is that they're going to argue that these people are being framed. And they're being framed only because they're Hindu. And I think that is already servicing as a very important plank. We have to see what the people think. AT this point it's very difficult to gage whether that argument is finding resonance with the people or not.
JO: What do you think it would mean if it does find resonance with the people?
MR: Look, I think that this politics of Hindu pride or Hindu hurt—these are their terms, not mine—will never go away. It will always be there. But you know, it ebbs and flows, and we've been through a period in which it was ebbing, so maybe the ebb is over and it's started flowing. I think one of their problems – and this is something that they're all willing to admit – is that they've not been able to find a symbol with the enormous potential that the Ram symbol had in the '90s, or the Kargil war had at the end of the '90s. In the beginning of the '90s they had Ram, which of course symbolizes their ideology and politics very clearly, and there happens to be a very important disputed spot as well. And in the late '90s with Kargil it was of course a defense of national territory, so it became a sort of nationalism, war, and all that. Now, look at the picture almost 10 years on. Where is the symbol? They tried Ram Sethu. It didn't work. Or it doesn't seem to have worked. They tried the Jammu issue, and the government gave way. They're a movement in search of a rallying point and a symbol. Will the Sadhvi who has been subject to interrogation by the police, or the serving officer in the army, or the former [head of] the Bhonsla Military School—will these people become the rallying symbol? Frankly, I don't know. But I'm not so sure. It will help rally their own people, that it will definitely do. The various wings of the parivar—and it's a vast organization—will rally together. They rally together when they feel they are being attacked.
The problem for this government – I'm talking about the Congress – is that it doesn't have anyone who does the political part of it. Let me assume that there is something against these people, the sadhvi, whatever. Whether there is or not the courts will decide. But politically, I would have expected the Congress to go on a huge offensive, and say, you know, that that party [the BJP] created the atmosphere, the climate, where this could happen. I'm very struck because ten years ago, in her first election meeting in Ram Lila Maidan, Ms. Sonia Gandhi actually began by saying that the BJP is a party which espouses the same ideas which inspired the man who was the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. She was very careful. She didn't say he was a member of the RSS—he was not at the time—but she said that he believed in the same school of thought. That sends a signal that the Congress is willing to take the battle into their camp. The minute you say that, they will react and say he was not one of us. He was not a member, he left the RSS, he was in the Mahasaba, and he left the Mahasaba. We have nothing to do with him... You know, they go on the defensive. But that's not happening.
The Congress's core issue is very, very serious. I see these six elections – if you include Jammu & Kashmir and Mizoram.... If you ask me, see, the Congress is facing a score of 0-8. They have lost eight state elections in a row. Lost means they didn't come to power. IN some cases they were in power, in some cases they hoped to come to power, in some cases they couldn't have come to power but they could have bettered their record, let's say in UP, but they didn't. It's a deep crisis within the party. The Congress is a party that likes to win. They rally around the members of the Gandhi-Nehru family because those people know how to win. They're not born to rule. They rule because they rally the people and the rank and file of the party are convinced that they can reach out to the people, that they have their finger on the pulse, that they understand the mood of the times and they set the agenda. You have to give Sonia Gandhi the credit that it 2004, she stuck it out and kept saying that India Shining won't work. You know, if you read Ed Luce's book, she told Ed Luce in a very understated way, “I don't know about the papers but when I go out into the countryside and talk to people, they don't think things are that good, and my party's assessment is that we're going to do much better than all of you think.” She was right.
But now, five years on, is this a party – her, the PM – have they actually lost touch with the popular mood? Have they lost the ability to reach out? It often happens. Being in power always carries that risk. And more particularly, the person who is supposed to take charge, because we all know who he is [I.e. Rahul Gandhi] what has he actually done to energize this party? You know, our state elections are like national elections if you look at the numbers. They're so immense! It's organizationally a great challenge. And I would have expected him by this time to be out [campaigning]. Not in St. Stephen's College—it was like a walkabout by a rock star, which was great. But is he reaching out beyond that circle? I don't know. I would expect Rahul Gandhi to take the battle into the RSS camp on the bombs, saying you know my grandmother died, my father died, I'm opposed to the cult of violence, whatever. He's not doing that. Why? I'd expect him to go out and say we're facing a major economic crisis, but you know we're going to have the second-fastest growing economy in the world because of the outstanding leadership of our economist prime minister, and I am standing with him. He is going to run the government but my mother and I are going to give him all the support he wants. Will you help me? He's not saying that. What is he saying? What's the message? There's none.
JO: Yes, there's a kind of silence, or a kind of reactive stance....
MR: No, no. There's something much more serious going on. I think their machine is in tatters. I think it's worse today than it was five years ago, strange as it may sound. You look at each of the states—this state [Delhi] is different, because Sheila Dikshit is an incredibly capable leader; I think she's going to lose the elections, but that's a completely different matter. After ten years, we expect anybody to lose the election. But look at the other states. There's no clarity of leadership. There's very little clarity of the social profile [I.e. the different castes and communities that the party will woo]. The party is being run by remote control by general secretaries in Delhi. Obvious natural leaders who emerged from these states have not been put back in charge – Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot-- I don't know. I actually think this party.... Somewhere in their heart of hearts the fight has gone out of them, which is bizarre, because the Congress normally fights incredibly hard.
JO: In the Gujarat election, there was that question about do we want to go down that road of criticizing the BJP for the riots because in a way it serves up the ball for them to bring back Hindutva. So they avoided mentioning that with Modi until the end, when after being criticized by the press Sonia Gandhi brought it up....
MR: ...and the way that she brought it up actually played right into his hands.
JO: Do you think that something like that is going on now?
MR: I don't know. My reading of Gujarat was that they were never in the race. He [Modi] fought the election in a completely new way. He marginalized his own party. He marginalized all the front organizations. He rendered them toothless. He fought effectively. He was the candidate in all the 182 constituencies, which is something that is very new for the BJP. The BJP is essentially a cadre driven party with an ideology—like the old Commie parties or the Nazi party or whatever. But he didn't fight it like that. He fought it as The Leader. And the way he did it, you have to give him credit organizationally. He used two groups very interestingly. One was the elected leaders of the panchayats. The other was the cooperatives. Nobody has realized this out here [in Delhi]. The key organizers were the leaders of the panchayats and the cooperatives—all out of personal loyalty to him. And he fought the elections – Gujarati asmita pride was there, and Gujarati asmita has a Hindu color to it, no doubt. But the other dimension is in the economy. It's not the big projects – it's not the petrochemical factories and fertilizers or IT—it was hard economic achievements. Jobs in terms of industrialization of the small towns. The huge transformation of agriculture, particularly cotton, but also groundnut. SO it's a very unusual state where agricultural growth and the growth of the manufacturing sector played to the advantage of the government. Hindu society is multi layered – at the top there is the Brahmins and then there are the dominant landed classes in Gujarat, the Patels – he reached out below both of these. IF you look at the BJP in Gujarat, he has brought in the backwards and the tribals in a big way. And, it has to be very clear that he has done this completely unrepentant about his past [association with the 2002 Ahmedabad riots]. That was not the central point this time, because I've traveled a little in rural Gujarat, and it was a little disconcerting how matter of fact people were about what happened, but that was not the main driving force this time.
I don't think the Congress was ever in the fight in Gujarat. At times they looked like a pale copy of the BJP. I'm forgetting the name [but] in Surat, the person who fought for the Congress—Rahul Gandhi campaigned in his constituency—was one of the major perpetrators and accused in the Surat riots of 1993. Horrific riots. They're were among the most horrific riots in this country's history. There were at least 8 people who were RSS / BJP people who went over to the Congress and were given tickets. This may not be known to you, but Muslims knew it. And I'll give you a statistic. Gujarat is around 9 percent Muslim and they're 182 seats, so you should have around 16 Muslim candidates. The last time Congress won the elections it was 1985. It had 26 Muslim candidates of whom 18 won. This time it had six. It had eight people who had been accused in riots who were from the BJP / RSS. They were far more communal than Narendra Modi had been in public. So I think the Congress doesn't know what to do. On the one hand it's willing to do anything to get elected, including being a pale copy of the BJP and Modi. On the reverse, as you rightly say, they suddenly say Oh we're very secular and we're going to attack them. People have seen through this. And I think it's a very serious issue for the Congress. IF you look at the mood of the minorities today—not only Muslims but also Christians—the feeling is that this union government is incapable of protecting us. That is very serious.
JO: So they're getting it from both sides, being accused by the BJP of being soft on terror, and by the minorities of failing to protect them?
MR: They're getting it on both sides. Yes, yes, yes. It's very interesting. I'll give you an example. In '47-'48 when the riots were very bad in this city, Jawaharlal Nehru was fighting for control. I'm forgetting the name of his officer but I think it was Kanungo who was in the police; he told him “Look, I want the Walled City quiet.” Kanungo drove to Jama Masjid and he arrested six of the Hindu Mahasaba people and two of the Akadis (?), and he paraded them in an open jeep for three hours. He manacled them in handcuffs, and he announced, “If anybody does anything, I will take care of these men.” And things died down. There's a reason: Nobody questioned Jawaharlal Nehru's sincerity. You may have disagreed with him; you may have called him a Muslim lover; but you wouldn't have questioned either his personal courage or his integrity. Something has happened to this government.
I think this Batla House shootout in Delhi was a very serious turning point. I do not know who those guys were. I do not know if the cops fired first. I have no idea. But the mood among educated Muslims is that the police are trigger happy. It's a very serious issue. What every one of them says is something very interesting. They say, “You know, in 1993 there was the bomb blasts in Mumbai, which were horrific, and there were the [anti-Muslim] riots [that followed]. 80 percent of the bomb blast accused have been convicted. Less than 1 percent of those accused have even been tried in the case of the riots. And there's been a Congress government in Mumbai since 1999 and a Congress government in the center since 2004. You know, I feel this government doesn't realize what thin ice it's skating on. Look, with the Hindu middle classes, the party's over. These are groups who move really fast. They were toasting Manmohan Singh in 2004. That's all over. Now they're looking at the housing loan rate, which was at seven and now it's at 11 percent; they're going to look at inflation; they're going to look at the stock market; they're going to look at the crisis in housing—it's completely collapsing; and of course they're going to listen to the BJP guys saying you're under threat, somebody's going to bomb you and these guys are not protecting you, they're letting people walk free. They [the Congress] have to find their own voice, and they'd better do something soon. They better do it fast. I'm not able to see any sign of that, but let's give them their due, maybe they know something we don't.