File photo of Narendra Modi | Wikipedia Commons

Despite all the confusion caused by opinion polls, exit polls and whatever the Gujarat throws up on Sunday there is unanimity across political fences on one issue: that this is a historic election. For one side, it is a test of the power of Hindu consolidation, for another it’s a battle for India’s secular, liberal soul.

Everybody agrees that this election would determine the quality and character of our future politics. Yet, what have they been talking about except Godhra, post-Godhra riots, Islamic terrorism, Mian Musharraf, Gujarati pride, love Modi/hate Modi and so on?

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Whatever happens in Gujarat, the BJP won’t be able to sustain the Modi versus Mian Musharraf theme in the more mainstream Hindi states. Similarly, the Congress needs to come up with an idea more imaginative than vanilla secularism or soft Hindutva. It would have to accept that Modi and, following in his wake, the senior leadership of his party have changed the political discourse in a dramatic manner. Never, until this Gujarat election, did any mainstream party name names while blaming communities for riots or terrorism. That hesitation is now gone. It is tough to see who will put the clock back on that.

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The BJP’s mouth-watering idea of Hindu polarisation still needs the confirmation of this Sunday’s counting but never in our past has a minority come out so openly and strongly separated from the mainstream to vote for one party irrespective of the candidate. If an outsider looked at the visuals of the voters’ queues outside Gujarat booths you couldn’t blame him for wondering if we (like pre-Musharraf Pakistan) too had a system of separate electorates. There is no reason to believe that some of that contagion will not travel to other states.

The easy solution is the unlikely one. Just bring in the real, roti-dal issues and make people demand better governance, better lives for themselves. But can that happen in a political system that is so smug hugging the past it does not even see their need to mention the future? Can the post-Gujarat debate break out of the secularism-communalism trap and move into issues of quality of life and governance? Can you really expect this from leaders with minds so deeply rooted in the past?

The Congress wants you to vote for its Nehru-Gandhi past. The BJP has gone a great deal backwards in history seeking votes in the name of Lord Rama and to supplement him it has now snatched Sardar Patel away from the Congress. Mulayam Singh Yadav gets votes from Muslims in revenge for the Babri betrayal of the Congress (a decade in history already) and Mayawati will settle the scores for her Dalits with the tilak-tarazu-talwar (brahmin-bania-kshatriya) gang for 5,000 years of exploitation, even if it is done mostly by transferring each district collector or superintendent of police every month.

When was the last time you heard one of our leaders promising us a great future in return for our votes? Better quality of life? More food, schooling, healthcare, jobs, even a little surplus in our banks at the end of the month? But what are we complaining about? Elections caught in the trap of cynical politics? What else is electoral politics all about? It has, in fact, been three decades since even a vaguely economic, roti-kapda-aur-makaan issue dominated a campaign.

In 1971 Indira Gandhi won on her phoney garibi hatao slogan. In 1977 we voted to restore democracy and the following one, in 1980 was won by the other side on the promise of ridding us of a khichdi (hotch-potch) Janata government, 1984 had the sympathy wave, Bofors blighted 1989 and then Hindu revival and Mandalite social justice left our politics firmly in the doldrums, unable to break out of ideas, slogans and prejudices of its geriatric past.

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It is one thing to extol the virtues of coalition politics but what is one to expect from arrangements that come together not on the basis of a common set of nation-building ideas but merely to keep the other side out. We had to suffer the non-governing arrangements of Gowda and Gujaral for the sake of keeping ‘secular’ forces in power. Now, from this disparate cabinet where even senior minister’s honour their common agenda only in breach we have to stomach so much anarchy for the commonly shared high ideal of keeping the Congress out of power.

Gujarat, irrespective of the result, can force a rethink on all this. If the BJP wins, its senior leaders will have to think: is this the kind of politics they had spent a half century in public life for? It is possible that they will show the good sense of making a course correction now rather than be swept by this gale of hatred and distrust and hand over the reigns to their party’s polarisation upstarts. They are too shrewd not to know the price they will have to pay for it in states (like Andhra Pradesh) which will matter more than Gujarat in 2004.

The Congress, on the other hand, will find that soft Hindutva is a lousy answer to the problem of the decline of the vote-catching power of the old slogan of secularism. It is they, more than any other party who reduced the constitutional ideal secularism into cynical, electoral minorityism. It was such a no-brainer that even a one-state politician like Mulayam Singh Yadav has stolen it away from them. Nothing has distorted our national politics, and prevented its move towards a genuine two-party situation than his taking away of the Muslim vote.

In Gujarat, the Congress will get it in spite of its soft Hindutva or jaundiced secularism because the Muslims’ wounds are fresh and they know voting Mulayam is a waste. Here they want revenge on the BJP and will vote the Congress. But will Gujarat force them to rethink in Uttar Pradesh, they’ve been taking revenge on the Congress by voting Mulayam? It won’t happen if the Congress stuck another Vaghela under their noses. Nor can it return to secular minorityism any longer.

It is possible, therefore, that the post-Gujarat churning may restore some mainstream balance back into our politics rather than, as is widely feared, leave us polarised for ever. It may be wishful thinking but, who knows, this unfortunate campaign may force both the BJP and Congress towards the middle, with themes of governance, economic reform and better life. It may even persuade the minorities, particularly Muslims, that exclusionist voting strategies are self-defeating.

If this happened, some of the recent aberrations will disappear from our politics. That is why Gujarat is not a battle for India’s soul. It is a test of its leaders’ wisdom, foresight and national commitment.

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