August 5, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt

Sheela Bhatt, a senior editor of, looks at how prepared the state is for elections and the issues that will dominate.

If there is one question that is haunting everyone, it is this: Has normalcy returned to Gujarat?

Yes and no.

Former Punjab Police chief K P S Gill, who was deputed special advisor to the chief minister with the intent of restoring calm in the state, claims it will not witness a repeat performance of the riots in the near future.

After a Muslim mob burnt a train coach in Godhra resulting in the death of 59 Hindu passengers on February 27, the Hindu mobs that rampaged across the state, targeting Muslims and their businesses, have now started talking about faida-nuksan (profit-loss). The Muslims have been hit so badly that they are still too numb to react. Technically speaking, normalcy has returned.

The public is secure and the law and order situation is normal. The women of Gujarat can be seen eating ice cream on the streets at midnight. Thus, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not wrong when he says the state is peaceful again.

This, however, is the situation on the surface. The fear of death has gripped those most directly affected by the violence, such as the many residents of Naroda Patia, where rampaging mobs burnt to death 90 persons. Those who fled to refugee camps have now been asked to return to their broken homes. Rehabilitation officials have told them to stop cribbing and crying since physical conditions are now 'normal.'

Today, about 3,000 Naroda Patia residents live in the Shah Alam refugee camp. On July 26, they were told by the collector's office to return home and seek the compensation due to them. Whether they get it or not, the refugees will be shifted to a new camp in some other area. In this manner, the displaced continue to be indirectly harassed .

Modi alone cannot be blamed for all this. After all, the entire bureaucratic machinery, which is inflexible, insensitive, communal and corrupt, bends before the politicians' demands.

Gujarat may be back to normal in the sense that violence has abated, but the mutual trust that a community needs to lead a normal life is missing. And, given the unsympathetic government machinery, any practical help for the victims appears to be wishful thinking.

Which does beg the next question: Why did Gill endorse the call for an early election?

Because Gill, famed for his role in suppressing terrorism in Punjab, is not strong enough to change the fundamental thinking of the Hindu right wing parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party's politics of playing the Hindu card is a 51-year-old election practice. It is, to word it simply, a Hindu party.

Gill had two major tasks in Gujarat. One was to restore peace; the second was to revitalise the police system that had completely broken down after Godhra. He achieved the first task easily because riot fatigue had already set in by the time he began his work. But he failed miserably in controlling the biases against the Muslims at the ground level. When first information reports (the first complaint made at a police stations) were filed, they were 'manipulated' as much as possible. In one shocking case in Vadodara, a Muslim was arrested for killing Muslims.

Gill could not do much. For instance, he could not help a couple in Bhavnagar who claimed they were being framed. Despite his designation, he was shocked at his powerlessness. Realising he could do little, he endorsed the decision for early polls in the hope that Gujarat would get over the pre- and post-election compulsions of the various political parties.

The tragic fact is that unless politics is out of the way, the process of justice cannot begin in Gujarat. And, when elections are around the corner, the Congress and BJP become two sides of the same coin. Gill supported elections not only because it was politically correct but also because he realised the Modi government would not allow the police to work professionally since that would displease those Hindus who hailed the mob violence. These Hindus also happen to be staunch BJP supporters.

A few of the police officials in Gujarat are professionals, but need a politically viable atmosphere to do their job. Even an apolitical man can tell that, in Gujarat, the anger that was provoked by the Godhra carnage is fast diminishing and will evaporate once the real culprits of Naroda Patia and Gulmarg Society in Ahmedabad (where Hindu mobs killed many Muslims) are handcuffed.

Thus, there is no way that Modi, the latest hero of the Hindutva supporters, will allow the police a free hand to do their job until the elections are over. Gill understood this political compulsion. Like other political observers, he also realised the BJP and Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's future are inextricably linked to the Gujarat elections.

Gill's best hope is that, post-polls, the politicians will leave the Gujarat police alone to clean up the mess by investigating the killings and violence.

What, however, are the political ground realities?

Gujarat is unlikely to be cakewalk for the BJP, if only because the pro-Hindu sentiment is limited to areas where the riots took place. However, even Congress party officials admit the BJP could be helped by the fact that it is way ahead in its electoral preparations. A senior Congress leader has even said winning an election in Gujarat would be a miracle for the Congress!

Let's now look at two sets of figures.

In Gujarat, according to the last census, Dalits comprise seven per cent of the population; tribals, 15 per cent; Patels, 18 per cent; Banias, four per cent; Brahmins, three per cent; Muslims, nine per cent; Kshatriyas, including Thakors (backward class Rajputs), 16 per cent; and Kolis (mostly landless labourers), 20 per cent. The remaining eight per cent are classified as other backward classes.

The most powerful and vocal group are the Patels, who tend to vote en bloc. In the last election, they voted in favour of BJP. Out of 182 legislators in the Gujarat assembly, more than 40 are Patels. They dominate the Cabinet as well.

The Patels are strongly opposed to the Kshatriyas (upper class Rajputs). Shankarsinh Vaghela is one such Kshatriya, who, in a sensational decision by Sonia Gandhi, was made the president of the Congress Party in Gujarat. After his selection, Saurashtra's newspapers were filled with congratulatory messages from fellow Kshatriyas, forcing Vaghela had to issue an overnight order to not publish such messages. That is because, in Saurashtra, 51 out of 58 seats are with BJP and a majority of them were won with Patel votes. Vaghela feared this public display of Kshatriya support would instantly unite the Patels against the Congress.

If the Dalits, tribals and Muslims unite in favour of the Congress, they can get power and compete socially with the rich and influential upper classes. But that is unlikely to happen since, in the last decade, the BJP has successfully divided the Dalits and tribals. Elderly BJP members, in fact, were shocked to see the strident pro-Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) sentiment of the tribals in the Panchmahals and Sabarkantha districts during the recent riots. The Kolis, too, are divided

Now, let's look at the 1998 voting pattern. The BJP won 44.81 per cent of the votes, whereas the Congress garnered 34.85 per cent. Vaghela's then existing outfit, the Rashtriya Janata Party, got an impressive 11.68 per cent and the Janata Party (comprising mostly former Congress members) got 2.63 per cent. The Bahujan Samaj Party won just 0.8 per cent.

The figures show the Congress and Vaghela's RJP together got more votes than the BJP. The RJP has since merged with the Congress. Incidentally, Vaghela was earlier associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as was Narendra Modi, and was, for a time, a cabinet minister in the BJP government.

Thus, an interesting battle is on the cards: Modi versus Vaghela.

Modi is considered bright, focused, hard-working and popular, having created a large following after the riots. As chief minister, he also has access to the state's infrastructure.

Vaghela has his strengths too. He is considered affable and flexible and is on extremely good terms with the grassroots workers, often knowing them on a first-name basis. His weakness is his recent past as a former RSS member.

As a Gujarati minister in the union Cabinet put it, the battle will be between the voters' Hindu sentiment, as articulated by the BJP, and their caste sentiment.

Also see: Gujarat: The Complete Coverage

Design: Lynette Menezes

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