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NOT since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, even more the Mumbai riots (pogrom?), has any state election assumed the kind of importance that Gujarat threatens to in our polity. A decade earlier, midterm elections to the four states, till then run by the BJP, turned in heartening results. Barring in Rajasthan, the incumbent party lost everywhere, reasserting once again the fundamentally secular nature of our polity. But what now?

Most pre-poll surveys indicate that the Narendra Modi led BJP enjoys a clear edge in the hustings. The India Today – Aaj Tak – ORG-MARG poll forecasts that the BJP may sweep 120-130 seats in the 182 member assembly, virtually decimating the Opposition Congress which, prior to Godhra and the subsequent riots of February-March 2002, was a clear favourite.

The rationale behind the forecast rests on a single assumption, that this is no normal election and that more than anti-incumbency or the complicated playing out of caste-ethnicity-regional factors, even the selection of specific candidates, all that matters is the assertion of Gujarati Hindu pride. That the reaction to ‘pseudo-secularism’ and ‘Gujarat bashing’ by unthinking secularists Mandalites/Macaulayites has created an unstoppable wave.

There is little doubt that this is no ordinary election. Three years of continuous drought, the devastating earthquake of January 2001, and now the riots have left in their wake a deeply battered and divided society. Despite the formally impressive figures of private investment inflows, the fragile economic situation – shutdown manufacturing establishments, high unemployment and continuing recession – is no state secret. A politics of shrill and aggressive Hindutva is hardly likely to ease the situation.

But it is not the above issues which are being debated in these elections. For the BJP which has managed to lose all state elections (barring Goa) ever since it assumed power at the Centre, this may be a make or break contest. Not only is Gujarat the one state where it holds power on its own, for over a decade now it has projected the state as its unique laboratory. Possibly this is why the party, stray dissenting voices apart, has made no effort to rein in Narendra Modi and his intemperate associates of the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the RSS.

Nevertheless to take Gujarat as a lost match maybe an error. It bears reiteration that the BJP has not found it easy to finalise its list of candidates. The Patel community, in particular its leader, Keshubhai Patel, remains deeply disgruntled. Also that many of the erstwhile high-profile leaders of the party – be it Jayanaryan Vyas or Hiren Pandya – remain opposed to Modi. Why, the chief minister designate has himself had to scour around for a safe seat.

Quite unlike the normal media characterization of Gujarat as a communally charged state, creating the picture of a Hindu consolidation, it must not be forgotten that barring central Gujarat and urban centres like Ahmedabad and Vadodara, most of the other regions remained relatively peaceful. Equally that any micro-analysis of the riots presents a variegated picture, with different caste and community groupings behaving differently in different regional and local contexts. Without for a moment denying the growth of communal consolidation, to take as axiomatic that caste Hindus are all united and will vote for the BJP appears somewhat far fetched.

Elections, more so in unusually charged times, have a way of surprising pundits. Few seriously believed that the National Conference regime would get voted out in Jammu and Kashmir. Let us also not underestimate the role of the state and constitutional machinery in ensuring that the electoral process remains ‘free and fair’ and that efforts to sway the voters by creating incidents and raising temperatures are thwarted. The VHP yatra, scheduled to take off from Godhra and culminate on 6 December at Ahmedabad, currently stands banned. And, at least, the initial leg of its programme was effectively contained by the state administration.

The real joker in the pack remains the Congress, so far without any proactive strategy. Fortunately, despite efforts by state chief Shankarsinh Vaghela, the High Command seems more inclined towards foregrounding issues of governance rather than prove that it is a better (and different) protector of Hindu interests. Also, despite the absence of credible local leadership, as also factional divides within the party, enthusiasm for securing its candidature remains high.

More than the abstract debates about India’s secular fabric or even the dangers of cross-border terrorism, elections in Gujarat will rest on whether the famed Gujarati pragmatism re-asserts itself. If so the battle will be fought on issues and lines which contribute to a healthy democracy. And irrespective of who wins, future dispensations may hopefully remain chary of repeating the recent past.

Harsh Sethi