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Beyond the blasts

Last Sunday’s bomb blasts in Patna, timed to precede BJP prime-ministerial nominee Narendra Modi’s rally, mark a murky and dangerous turn in Indian politics. If the turn persists, India will probably see bloody assembly elections in five states over the next month, and an even more gory 2014 Lok Sabha campaign.

Such violence is condemnable because it claims innocent lives. Worse, it’s liable to corrupt the process of democracy. People don’t act rationally in a climate of fear, insecurity and danger to life. They tend to suspend long-term considerations of public welfare and justice, and are overpowered by feelings of anger, retribution and revenge.

Besides proving that Modi has vitiated the climate with his macho persona and venom-spewing style, the blasts raise uncomfortable questions. Why did the perpetrators use low-intensity explosives? Does it make sense to cause death through a stampede triggered by these when high explosives could ensure much deadlier damage, and a bigger stampede?

How come the police could name the main culprit within an hour and all six alleged Indian Mujahideen terrorists in a day? How can the public be convinced that their confessions are authentic, when the opposite happened in the past? How is this case different from the framing of Ishrat Jahan, falsely accused of plotting to kill Modi, and then shot in cold blood?

Why did the BJP persist with Modi’s rally when it claims there were repeated intelligence warnings of impending trouble, and even after the blasts occurred? Since then, five more bombs were found at the site. How come Indian Mujahideen ‘terrorism’ started growing in Bihar – dramatised at Bodh Gaya – only after Nitish Kumar terminated his alliance with the BJP?

Beyond this, however, one thing is clear: the bombings politically benefited Modi by creating sympathy for him and further strengthening his macho image. That’s precisely why, logically, the possible involvement of a Hindutva-inspired grouping cannot be excluded. There’s ample evidence of such involvement from recent cases: Malegaon, Nanded, Hyderabad, Ajmer and Samjhauta Express. Right-wing extremist groups have a long history of staging events like the Reichstag fire to provoke violence against vulnerable minorities.

The public needs to be assured that Patna isn’t a repetition of past attacks when the police made identical allegations about the Indian Mujahideen, and rounded up scores of Muslim youth. They have since been proved innocent.

Besides, it’s still unclear if the Indian Mujahideen is a real organisation with a well-defined structure, or a symbolic identity constructed by the Intelligence Bureau. Numerous terrorist attacks have been blamed on the IM, without evidence of a unified command or coordinated planning and execution.

It would be disastrous if the Patna blasts trigger a cycle of violence and counter-violence. That can only help fanatical-sectarian forces, including the Sangh Parivar and its jihadi counterparts, and poison what will doubtless be a trendsetting Lok Sabha election in 2014.

That election will decide whether the Congress remains a major, possibly dominant, national force, or goes into decline; whether the left and regional parties can form the next government; and whether the BJP can stage a dramatic recovery. It’s too early to say which outcome will materialise. Opinion polls, which have lost some of their credibility, can be particularly misleading seven months ahead of the contest.

Yet, it’s clear that the BJP has the most to lose/gain from 2014. It has staked its utmost on winning 200 (of 543 Lok Sabha) seats needed to form a government by fielding the most brashly aggressive politician in Indian history. His campaign maligns all opponents and has nothing positive to offer.

In going all-out to mobilise support for him, the RSS can stoop to inciting communal violence. It knows that if the BJP loses a national election for the third time, it could be pushed to the political margins where it remained for four decades till the late 1980s, with 7-to-12 percent of the national vote. It was reduced to only two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, and recovered only after the violent Ram Jamnabhoomi movement.

That’s why the coming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram are crucial. These ‘semi-finals’ will test the Congress and the BJP in the first four, essentially bipolar, states. If the BJP wins in three or all four of these, its 2014 campaign will get a big boost. If it loses in even two states, its forward momentum will be broken. If it loses in three states, it will face a truly uphill battle to 2014.

This is plausible. The Congress stands a good chance of winning in Rajasthan and Delhi, and can put up a decent fight in Madhya Pradesh. Even in Chhattisgarh, its chances have improved despite Chief Minister Raman Singh’s popularity.

A precondition for this is that the Congress should do careful social coalition-building, galvanise a strong appeal to the poor by convincingly pledging to fulfil their minimum needs, and run an energetic, united campaign that’s more coherent than Rahul Gandhi’s.

The Congress has a decent governance record in Rajasthan, where Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has notched up India’s best performance in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, given effect to the Right to Information for development projects, and launched schemes for the free supply of medicines and monthly old-age pensions at Rs500.

Gehlot has consolidated his base among the non-Jat Other Backward Classes, and won over sections of assorted castes and tribes. He broke the four-decades-long upper-caste hold on Rajasthan in 1998. He astutely neutralised the Jats too by including them in OBC quotas. It’s feasible for him to build a winning social-group coalition.

In Delhi, Sheila Dixit stands to gain from a division in the anti-incumbency vote likely to be triggered by the Aam Admi Party’s rise. She can capitalise on her recent pro-people measures. AAP will eat into some Congress votes, but will probably win even more from the faction-ridden BJP.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP faces anti-incumbency due to corruption. It has been warned by former CM Babulal Gaur that it could be defeated unless it drops at least four ministers and one-fifth of sitting MLAs. This is unlikely. There are signs of a Congress revival with Jyotiraditya Scindia taking over as the campaign chief. If the Congress reaches seat adjustments with small regional groups, it could well prevent the BJP’s return to power.

In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh had an advantage thanks to his Public Distribution System reform, which made food accessible to nine-tenths of the people. But that advantage, say right-to-food activists, has been eclipsed by aggressive land acquisition for industries and corruption.

The Chhattisgarh situation looked dismal for the Congress after the May 25 Maoist ambush which killed its state president Nand Kumar Patel and several veterans. Matters were aggravated by BJP-spread rumours that former Congress CM Ajit Jogi was behind the ambush, and would explore options outside the Congress.

However, Jogi seems has been pacified with his wife and son getting party tickets. Besides, the Communist Party of India, in alliance with small regional outfits, has emerged as a factor in the Maoist-dominated Bastar region. This could well produce a hung assembly.  The overall picture isn’t rosy for the Congress, but nor is it for the BJP despite its early advantage.

The writer, a former newspapereditor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in

Praful Bidwai, "Beyond the blasts," The News. 2013-11-04.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Society-India , Politics-India , Social rights , History-India , Violence , Democracy , Terrorists , Terrorism , Mujahideen , Ishrat Jahan , PM Narendra Modi , CM Ashok Gehlot , India , BJP