Monday, February 17, 2014

Modi, Mulayam, Muzaffarnagar

Economic and Political Weekly, February 15 2014

Modi, Mulayam, Muzaffarnagar
The communal riot and the electoral politics of the ghetto

Sukumar Muralidharan
1 February 2014

Ambition unbound, Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi has been spending very little time in the state he was elected to lead. With an ample assist from highly-paid advertising and public relations agencies, the man who would be prime minister has established a presence in every crucial battleground state, addressing political meetings and ensuring that giant election posters plastered with his visage are erected at every vantage point. His pervasive presence in the riot-scarred territory of Muzaffarnagar in the western part of Uttar Pradesh  (U.P.) serves a didactic purpose, as too does the conspicuous absence of the reigning patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Modi and his closest lieutenant, Amit Shah, have not themselves stepped into troubled Muzaffarnagar, though they have certainly exerted an influence at a distance. And two among the elements identified as key players in stoking the September violence in the district and its neighbourhood – both state legislators – were lionised and given pride of place in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally that Modi addressed in nearby Agra late November.[1]
Already at risk of losing a political constituency vital to the success of his Samajwadi Party (SP), Mulayam Singh engineered a fresh public relations disaster for himself by hosting a cultural event dripping with gaudy Bollywood vulgarity in his home village, even as his son Akhilesh Yadav who has inherited the state administration like a family heirloom, sanctioned a taxpayer funded junket for legislative colleagues through exotic locales of the west. And since the UP state government began forcibly shutting down relief camps and evicting those rendered homeless and vulnerable by the September riots, Mulayam Singh has denounced the camps themselves as part of a “conspiracy” to discredit the state administration. Taking their cue from the paterfamilias, ministers and civil servants in the state have stepped up with statements of surpassing cynicism, denying the victims of collective violence the dignity of recognition or redress.[2]
This version of events which regards riot victims as accessories in a political conspiracy, contends for influence with another which views them as part of an action reaction sequence. Nobody escapes blame in this theory of collective violence, neither victims nor perpetrators. Gujarat’s chief minister has been identified with this famous reformulation of Newton’s third law, from his first enunciation of it in an almost offhand fashion, as lethal riots broke out under his nose in 2002.
In March 2010, Modi had a long delayed moment of accountability when questioned by a Supreme Court-appointed investigation (the Special Investigation Team or SIT) about his possible complicity in the violence. About the “action-reaction” statement, made over a national broadcast channel just when riots were shifting from random and opportunistic attacks to organised large-scale violence, Modi pleaded for an appreciation of the words “in the correct perspective”. Viewed from this standpoint, his words would be “evidently” seen as a “very earnest appeal for refraining from any kind of violence”. Indeed, the allegation that the remark amounted to an abdication of responsibility or an incitement to violence, was entirely without substance (SIT, 2010a: 16).
For those with memories of the day, this may seem a mealy-mouthed – even brazen – alibi for a statement that then seemed to convey a supreme sense of indifference, even exultation, at the eruption of violence all around. Yet Modi won that round when the SIT offered him a partial exoneration. In holding that the evidence did not rise to the standard required for criminal prosecution, the SIT did what many believe, was a disjointed and piecemeal exercise, taking particular allegations independently of the next, viewing each in isolation from the broader context of rampaging mobs terrorising vast numbers of Gujarat’s religious minority for close to six months. (Bal, 2012)
The SIT report itself came under scrutiny in a legal appeal by Zakia Jafri, widow of a former member of parliament killed in Ahmedabad, even as Modi was rediscovering the fundamentals of Newtonian dynamics. Judicial scrutiny began at the very primary stage and unsurprisingly, a magistrate in Ahmedabad in a December 26 ruling, upheld the SIT’s main findings. All the evidence, said the court, indicated a communal riot or a spontaneous eruption of mass anger, rather than targeted or organised violence.[3]
Communal riots, the court seemed to argue, have no master narrative, being most often, instantaneous and unplanned reactions to events that seriously disturb social equanimity. In terms of the understanding distilled from years of experience in independent India, this would seem a curious piece of revisionism. Those who have been out in the field, tasked with maintaining public order, know that communal riots usually have a prolonged genesis. Indeed, anybody with half a practised eye can usually see a riot coming at a distance, as embers of low-level conflict are fanned aflame by identifiable actors.
Training material in use at the Lal Bahadur Shastri academy in Mussoorie, where generations of civil servants – the secular clergy that administers the Indian nation state – have been trained, outline the circumstances in which collective violence could be a threat. Once the threat arises, administrative defaults could make violence a reality. Prepared by seasoned public administrators, the academy’s training material draws on a wealth of experience and virtually every formal judicial inquiry, to clearly delineate the warning signs that should be heeded and the preventive measures that should be a practised routine for all civil servants. The material is presumably updated periodically, but the version available in the public domain since being posted on the website of a policy research group bears reference to events between the early-1960s and late-1980s, i.e., it omits the worst events of the bitter prelude to the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya and the traumatic upsurge in violence in its aftermath.[4] Though possibly a limitation, it could be credibly argued that the communal violence of the 1990s – more extensive than anything seen till then -- conformed to the template established in earlier decades, as indeed, did the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat.
Among the lapses that administrators are warned against is a failure “in the timely and accurate collection of intelligence” or in the “correct assessment (of) intelligence reports received”. This would seem like stating the obvious, but in their training India’s civil servants are evidently tutored to be attentive to even the most banal of truisms. In the buildup to violence, administrators could often fail to “counteract false and exaggerated rumours”. And this is especially important, since “no communal riot ever takes place without a build up through rumours”. These rumours “are circulated rapidly and through distortion, they grow at each recitation”. Rumours also play a major role during the “actual rioting by helping to sustain excitement (sic)”. (LBS Academy, 2004: 78)
Viewed in terms of this template, Gujarat’s violent outbreak of 2002 had a long prelude, when the component parts of a pogrom were quietly assembled. Though an arson incident  in Godhra – some three hundred kilometres from the state capital -- in a train carrying volunteers in the cause of commandeering the terrain of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was the immediate trigger, there was a period through which public sentiment was primed for a period of cataclysmic violence.[5] Particularly germane would be the mood built up after the September 11 attacks in the U.S., when persons of the Muslim faith were collectively smeared as unique bearers of the virus of terrorism. It was a time when Modi, as general secretary of the BJP holding charge of organisational matters, emerged as a key spokesman and pronounced his famous aphorism: "not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims" (Varadarajan, 2002: 7). With its practised eye for the main chance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) -- an affiliate of the BJP within the larger saffron brotherhood – chose exactly that inflamed context to plan the final manoeuvre in its campaign to take over the site it had long claimed as exclusive patrimony.
Asked how far he was aware of the VHP’s effort to mobilise “Ram sevaks” for the assault on Ayodhya, Modi chose to hedge (SIT, 2010a: 1-2). He only took charge of the Gujarat state administration as chief minister in October 2001. And intelligence reports on the VHP mobilisation, he said, were “normally received” by the Director-General of Police (DGP) and the Additional Chief Secretary (ACS) in the Home Department. Though aware that some volunteers from Gujarat were travelling to Ayodhya, he had no further knowledge of their intent, “as it was the duty of the police and the Home Department to make necessary bandobast (sic, arrangements) in this regard”.
Omitted in this narration is the inconvenient fact that as Chief Minister, Modi also held charge of the Home Department, with a political confidant Gordan Zadaphia – who he has since parted company with – assisting him as Minister of State. Escaping challenge here, Modi replies to a following question on access to intelligence inputs, with another evasion: “I am not aware of any such communication received from SIB (State Intelligence Bureau) and if at all it was received, the same must be with the Department (Home)”.
This account of a chief minister unaware – almost by intent -- of the messages that in an inflamed situation, must have been travelling up the food chain of the intelligence services, points to a breach of the first principle of vigilance in a situation of potential violence. Seemingly committed to the preconceived agenda of putting down the riots to spontaneity rather than planning, the SIT chooses not to go into this line of inquiry. It does however, clearly identify Modi’s formulation of the Newtonian action-reaction theory, as evidence of an effort to “water down” the seriousness of the situation. Modi’s remarks, the SIT observed, showed “a measure of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility” (SIT, 2010b: 70). There was an “implied justification of the killings of innocent members of the minority community”. And this, when “read together with an absence of a strong condemnation of the violence”, suggested “a partisan stance at a critical juncture” (Ibid: 153). The chief minister’s failure to visit riot spots and meet victims moreover, was clear indication of a “discriminatory attitude” (Ibid: 67). And if Modi was slipshod in handling intelligence and cavalier in his attitude towards the violence, the SIT also has found that he failed to check the alarming spread of rumour through media platforms that called the rioters to arms, breaching all norms of responsible conduct.
Conspicuous failure to interest himself in intelligence as the possibility of violence built up and gross partisanship once the killing started – these are concrete findings of the SIT egregiously ignored by headline writers who chose to blazon the supposed “clean chit” Modi had been given. Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran, appointed as amicus curiae by the Supreme Court to assist in establishing accountability for the riots, has underlined these specific findings and pointed out multiple areas where the SIT failed to follow the logic of its own inquiries (Amicus Curiae, 2010). Perhaps it was constrained by the rather narrow definition of its terms of reference or perhaps it was intimidated by the complexity of the terrain. Either way, the SIT chose not to inquire into the genesis of the riots. Modi offered the plea – probably as an alibi for his failure to properly assess available intelligence – that he had only been five months in the chief minister’s job when the riots broke out. But he was spared an obvious question that should have followed: when he took over as head of a state administration, did he leave behind his concerns and preoccupations as a BJP organisational man focused on mobilising his flock for the Ayodhya campaign?
This failure to ask a question that would have occurred to even a layman of average intelligence, betrays the seriously misplaced sense of deference that the SIT showed towards the subject of its interrogation. For an organising secretary of the BJP, the arson at Godhra would have been the perfect event to reverse flagging public enthusiasm for the Ayodhya cause. And Modi of course seized the opportunity eagerly and with complete disregard for his responsibilities as an administrator. Speaking over the local station of the state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan on February 28 – the day after the event – Modi swore vengeance  in terms that represent exactly what a responsible political leader should not do: “I want to assure the people that Gujarat shall not tolerate any such incident. The culprits will get full punishment for their sins. Not only this, we will set an example that nobody, not even in his dreams, thinks of committing a heinous crime like this".  On the floor of the Gujarat state assembly the same day he let loose in terms that hinted at incitement, rather than any intent to calm violent instincts: "The State Government, taking seriously this cruel and inhuman offence of the mass violence (on innocent travellers), is firm to take symbolic strict steps and to punish in such a way that such an incident may not repeat in the future" (Varadarajan, 2002: 8).
While giving Modi a free pass here, the SIT did query him about another of his brazen excursions into the frontiers of bigotry. As part of a state-wide motorcade to build a political constituency over the supposed affront to Gujarati pride, Modi addressed a public meeting in Mehsana on September 9, when he frontally took on the criticism that his administration had shown unseemly haste in shutting down the camps where survivors of the worst communal violence had sought shelter. Ridiculing the shelters as “children producing centres” where the supposed proclivity to engage in polygamy and spawn large families was in full play, Modi picked up an old slogan of the family planning movement which celebrated the nuclear family with two children and infamously parodied people of the Muslim faith as practitioners of the principle of “hum paanch hamaare pachees” (we are five and we have twenty-five). Obviously sensing the interrogation cutting close to the bone, Modi again chose prevarication. The references were general in nature and spoke to the need for family planning among all Gujaratis, he said. Unsurprisingly, this proved a rather tall tale even for an otherwise very credulous SIT. “The explanation given by Shri Modi is unconvincing”, it concluded, and his locutions at Mehsana “definitely hinted at the growing (sic) minority population” (SIT 2010b: 160).[6]
The political rewards that Modi harvested from the riots point to his unique distinction in the history of organised collective violence in India: nobody perhaps has used the riot as a tool of political constituency building with quite the same acumen. Rajiv Gandhi’s clean sweep of Delhi’s seven seats and his unprecedented four hundred seat majority in the Lok Sabha on the back of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom is the closest parallel, achieved in part because of an entente cordiale between the Congress and the Hindutva family.[7] But that was a transient triumph which unravelled rapidly as the Hindutva fraternity withdrew from its side of the deal and restored its patronage to the more amenable BJP. In contrast, Modi followed up his triumph of 2002 with two more, both equally comfortable, as the opposition to his aggressive political style remained scattered and confused. Electoral rewards in turn have become a form of legitimation, frustrating all efforts to enforce accountability.
A recent study on the spatial pattern of the 2002 violence in Gujarat points towards underlying political calculations. Dhattiwala and Bigg (2011) have gathered all relevant media reports from the time and sought to correlate the sites where violence occurred to a host of social and political factors. The relative strength of the BJP is assessed from the party’s performance in preceding rounds of elections. Economic status is measured using youth underemployment and unemployment and the presence of dalit and adivasi communities read off from census reports. The 1995 elections which brought the BJP to power for the first time in the state -- only to be followed by early elections in 1998 after the party was torn by internal dissidence – form the background to their study. Despite the discord, the BJP retained power on the back of strong public sentiment against “traitors” within the ranks. Dhattiwala and Bigg take the 1998 assembly results as a marker of the areas where the BJP had reason, going forward, to be worried about an erosion of votes. Their conclusions are clear: “violence was a product of political calculation and economic deprivation. Killings were low where the .. BJP..  was weak, but were also low where the BJP was strong; it peaked where the BJP faced the greatest electoral competition. Killings increased with greater economic deprivation, measured by underemployment and youth unemployment. Confounding expectations, violence was lower where Scheduled Castes and Tribes composed a higher proportion of the population. The fact that violence in towns and cities followed a political logic is confirmed by an analysis of the subsequent election: the BJP’s vote increased most in districts with the worst violence” (Ibid: 1; also see Dhattiwala, 2013).
Beyond the vapid theorising about spontaneous occurrences that cannot be restrained by administrative action, studies carried out over the years have shown how a definite political design can be read into communal riots. If secularism in India has been about confining cultural identities to a sphere deemed private, politics – that very public activity – is supposed to afford the space for a civilised dialogue between faiths. But democratic politics which was expected to be an antidote for the play of sectional interests has in reality become an arena where these are sharpened. In the absence of a solid civil society consensus, the competitive impulses unleashed by electoral politics may well be the principal factor aggravating the clash of identities.
Paul Brass has written about the riot as purposive and politically directed activity, both within routine quotidian practice as well as extraordinary situations of “movement politics”. But there are cities and towns that have a particular tendency to break out in lethal violence, a predisposition that sociological and ecological analysis cannot quite account for. And thus does Brass (1997: 3-32) arrive at his famous formulation that the distinct feature of such cities and towns is that they invariably host an "institutionalised riot system".
Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney (2002) has a rather differing diagnosis since he begins from the other end of the spectrum, seeking conditions in which communal peace and amity are sustained. And in this respect, he finds that urban centres with a long history of civic engagement between communities, are less prone to outbreaks of violence. It is not sufficient if these forms of association – in apolitical bodies such as libraries, sports clubs and chambers of commerce – are intra-communal. They necessarily have to be inter-communal to ensure that the peace is maintained.
One question in particular arises when looking at the real world implications of these theoretical positions: can the bonds of civic engagement that sustain communal peace and coexistence, resist the momentum of political movements orchestrated from above, when the agencies of the state are themselves sucked into vortex of fierce partisanship? From his own study of a long history of communal riots, Brass (2004: 4839) thinks not. Far from being “spontaneous occurrences”, riots are “produced” with a specific agenda. This would typically involve “calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, the conveying of messages, recruitment of participants, and other specific types of activities, especially provocative ones that are part of a performative repertoire”. And the inferences from his research are very clear: “even when elements of civic engagement do exist, they cannot withstand the power of political movements and forces that seek to create intercommunal violence”.
These studies of collective violence refer to dynamic realities: far from being static entities, civic engagement could be disrupted by the intrusion of politics and institutionalised riot systems created where none exist. By the same token, institutionalised riot systems could be contained and dismantled and ruptured civic fabrics stitched back together. This much is evident from experience, though both processes would take serious doses of political statesmanship and administrative will. Clearly, when electoral competition is unbound in its most intense form, there is especially serious cause to be attentive to the possibility of civic accord giving way and institutionalised riot systems coming into play.
Steven Wilkinson carries some of these insights forward and seeks to place the incidence of collective violence within the context of political competition. Riots, he argues, “are best thought of as a solution to the problem of how to change the salience of ethnic issues and identities among the electorate in order to build a winning political coalition” (Wilkinson, 2004: 1). In situations of competitive electoral democracy based on universal franchise, minorities usually enjoy protection, since it would be in the “government’s electoral interest” (Ibid: 6). Security for minorities would particularly be the outcome where they are a constituency that ruling parties or coalitions depend upon for gaining an electoral plurality, or when competition at the hustings is intense enough to invest their votes with a strategic value.
Successive electoral contests since the 1990s have cast the minorities in varying political roles. In the days of Ayodhya, the main religious minority was stigmatised as legatee to the various indignities inflicted in the past on India’s original, primordial cultural identity. Later, it was portrayed as an impediment to the glittering promises of modernity that lay ahead for India as it sought its merited place in global councils. And “terrorism”, portrayed in the dominant political narrative as a virtual monopoly of fundamentalist Islam, was the weapon deployed to thwart India’s march towards global prestige and modernity.
From the “Mandal” moment of 1990, when communities stigmatised under the ritual hierarchy of caste Hinduism were given the assurance of a part in the administrative process, Indian politics in Christophe Jaffrelot’s words has gone through a process of “plebeianisation”. Social groups that had little influence, have ascended to positions of leadership, in political configurations of elaborate complexity. An important countervailing (or in Jaffrelot’s words, “dialectical”) influence was also at work, in the majoritarian mobilisation which purported to restore Indian nationhood to an imagined primordial foundation of “Hindutva”. This introduced facets of “ethnodemocracy” into Indian politics, reducing certain religious minorities to “the status of second-class citizens”. The under-representation of Indian Muslims in the Lok Sabha, the directly elected house of India’s parliament, he says, became “more and more evident” as this variety of politics came insidiously to influence the entire spectrum  (Jaffrelot, 2011: xx-xxx).
Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha reached its peak in the early to mid-1980s. Jaffrelot’s figures (Ibid: xxiv) indicate that in 1980, there were 49 candidates of the Muslim faith who were elected to the Lok Sabha out of 131 who contested from the various parties. This put their representation in the lower house at nine percent of the total – less than their share in total population, but not by much – and their success rate in relation to the number of contenders, at thirty-seven percent. The gap has since grown. In the 2009 general elections, just 30 candidates of the Muslim faith were elected to the Lok Sabha of 832 who contested. Persons of the Muslim faith in other words, had a mere five-and-a-half percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and just over three percent candidates actually won. And in an early foretelling of the Modi strategy, of the 89 seats the BJP won in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, 47 were in constituencies directly affected by the riots of the Ayodhya mobilisation (Ibid: 179).
Jaffrelot’s state-wise survey showed that Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, have for years together, failed to elect a person of the Muslim faith to the Lok Sabha. The situation in the state assemblies, he points out, has been “fairly similar”. And at the local level, this community has been “experiencing a process of ghettoisation which began to accelerate with the wave of communal riots in the 1990s.” Indians of the Muslim faith, says Jaffrelot, were once at the “core of great cities” such as Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bhopal. But since the communal mobilisation of the 1990s, these cities are either “crumbling” or witnessing a fear-induced flight of Muslims, who seem to prefer the relative safety of “ghettos at the periphery” (Ibid: xxv).
Social and institutional determinants aside, the longer-term agenda behind riots as a political project, is exemplified in the diminishing Muslim presence in important legislative bodies and their disappearance from violence prone urban milieus. These are indeed testament to the success of the Hindutva political agenda, even if the BJP as its principal vehicle has not quite had an uninterrupted run of electoral victories. U.P. state, which was the epicentre of the Ayodhya mobilisation and witnessed some of the most widely dispersed violence during that phase of politics, affords one picture of the course followed by the politics of riots. With over 18 percent of its population being of the Muslim faith, it is a state where the community could potentially play a significant role in politics. In 1989, when preparations for the conquest of Ayodhya were beginning to gather momentum, Muslims won 41 out of the 425 seats in the U.P. legislative assembly. At the next round of elections, when the BJP won power for the first time in the state, minority representation was decimated, the number of candidates of the Muslim faith elected falling to 21. Following the climactic act of destruction at Ayodhya in December 1992, the BJP seemed set to sweep the elections held after the lapse of a year. But an unprecedented coalition of the “plebeian” political formations – the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – checkmated these ambitions. Since then, the number of candidates from the Muslim faith who have won election to the state legislature has steadily gone up. In the 2012 assembly elections, candidates of the Muslim community won 66 seats, or over 16 percent in a legislature of 403 members, perhaps for the first time almost matching their share within the total population of the state.

Table 1: Number of successful candidates of the Muslim faith in U.P. legislative assembly elections
Source: Official reports of the Election Commission of India ( Numbers arrived at through name identification of elected candidates.

This pattern represents the triumph of tactical voting by the community of Muslims in U.P. With the polarisation of U.P. electoral politics along multiple axes – and the emergence of two parties of the intermediate and lower castes to challenge the erstwhile hegemony of caste Hindus – the Muslim constituency has had a seeming multiplicity of choices. The BSP won the 2007 assembly elections partly on the strength of 29 victorious candidates of the Muslim faith, out of a total of 55 who were elected. And in 2012, when the SP won, it had 41 persons of the Muslim faith among its winning candidates. The BSP had the next highest tally with 16 and notably, certain community specific parties, such as the Ittihad-e-Milliat Council, the Peace Party and the Qaumi Ekta Dal, also registered their presence on the slate of victorious candidates. The resurgence of Muslim representation in the U.P. state legislature and the relative peace that has prevailed on the inter-communal front, seem to bear out Wilkinson’s (2004: 2003) finding that “high levels of party competition combined with strong backward-caste movements that regard Muslims as acceptable and valuable coalition partners puts Muslims in an extremely good position to demand security as the price of their votes.”
Nonetheless, if political competition were to be considered a determinant of the security of minorities, the situation in U.P. seems rather ambiguous. Wilkinson’s simple arithmetical formula reveals that electoral competition in U.P. has been intense ever since 1989 with three and more often four serious contenders always being in the fray. Competition becomes a little less intense in the 1993 elections, which the SP and BSP fought in alliance, to inflict a famous defeat on the BJP, just when it seemed most cocky about regaining power on the back of the polarisation of the Ayodhya demolition. Competition may have fallen in 1996 and then again in 2002, first time around because the Congress and BSP fought in alliance and the SP teamed up with the parties of the left, and the second time because the Congress effectively dropped out of contention, fighting alone and having its vote share fall into the single digit range in percentage terms. Since then, the SP and BSP have pulled ahead, the BJP’s vote has fallen and the Congress has in alliance with a variety of partners, managed to up its share. The elections of 2007 and 2012 have in this sense become more competitive than before.
The correlation between electoral competition and the incidence of violence in other words, is far from exact. Competition was intense in 1989 and 1991, when communal violence was widespread. Violence declined, as did electoral competition in the following years. From 2007 onwards, competition again began rising, perhaps touching the late-1980s level in 2012, but so too has the incidence of communal violence, especially since the latter election.
Realities in India test every research hypothesis with a rigour that the ivory tower has grown disused to. Wilkinson (2006: 237) does rather artlessly plant a foot on both sides of the fence, arguing that “high levels of electoral competition can reduce as well as precipitate ethnic violence.” This putative finding, he says, without a touch of irony, “is consistent with other research that has found the interparty competition for minority votes .. the best guarantee of ethnic peace.” Aside from the logical difficulties here, how does this square up with the realities of U.P., particularly in the current phase of politics? The factual record tells us that soon after Akhilesh Yadav took charge as chief minister in U.P., with no recommendation but a certain schoolboy charm and Mulayam Singh’s parentage, communal violence began mounting in the state. The Muzaffarnagar conflagration came as a sharp upward spike in a sequence that went back as far as May 2012. Indeed, soon after the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Allahabad High Court, acting on a public interest petition, had called for a list of all such incidents since Akhilesh Yadav took office (Tehelka, 2013).
Evidently, the difficulty with the electoral competition model when applied to U.P. lies in the specific character of the parties that are in contention for power in the state, particularly in the fact that one among them is by design and intent, not in the fray for the votes of over 18 percent of the electorate. By ideological persuasion and strategic intent, the BJP has sought to build its electoral fortunes on majoritarian sentiment constructed purely by negative association with the religious minorities: Muslims all over the country and Christians in a few pockets. Given the single-member, simple-plurality system in place in India, voters whose collective strength amounts to less than 20 percent of the total electorate could easily be isolated and their votes made inconsequential, if a sufficient number could be combined on a rival platform.
That strategy worked for the BJP in the 1991 elections to the U.P. state assembly, when it won a legislative majority with just over 31 percent of the total vote. It has since registered 33 percent in 1993 and 32.5 percent in 1996, getting the better of all other parties without ever being close to a majority. And to compound its miseries in India’s largest state, its vote share, despite a desperate effort to work out an alliance strategy, has since fallen to the low 20s, before slipping well below that threshold in both 2007 and 2012.
From the national point of view, the erosion of vote share in U.P. is evidently the source of deep frustration for the BJP. The first two occasions that it had a sight of power – for 13 days in 1996 and 13 months in 1998 – the BJP turned in a very strong performance in U.P., winning close to a third of its total tally of Lok Sabha seats in this state alone. Thirteen days in power might seem totally void of didactic value but it imparted an important political lesson to the BJP: that the hardline ideological stance of the Ayodhya campaign may strengthen its traditional allegiances, but would be of little value beyond a point since it alienated a still greater number. Partnerships needed to be forged if the party aspired to take power at the national level. And these partnerships required a kinder, gentler party personality.
The lesson imbibed, the BJP went to the polls in 1998 with a slate of twelve electoral allies, aided in its courtship by the collapse of the United Front coalition and the splintering of the Janata Dal, which left a host of regional players in anxious need of a partner at the national level. The BJP was in a sense, the only option since the Congress represented the principal opposition to most such partners within the regional context and was moreover, imprisoned in the delusion that it could revive its flagging fortunes all on its own.
Forced into a mid-term election in 1999, the BJP managed to bring on board still more allies, swapping one unreliable ally for its bitter regional adversary in Tamil Nadu, in a manoeuvre that epitomised the “end of ideology” quality of coalition building. As part of a broad coalition, the BJP could focus its attention on a far smaller number of seats than in 1998, to notch up a final tally of wins that was exactly identical. The key difference though was in its wins in U.P. falling by almost half: from 57 out of 182 seats, U.P. now contributed a mere 29 to the BJP’s identical total. But this was not an immediate worry because the party had the numbers to survive a full five-year term and the Vajpayee-Advani tandem that led the coalition was  regarded by partners as a rather congenial pairing that could resist potentially embarrassing ideological projects.

Table 2: Centrality of U.P. to BJP fortunes in Lok Sabha elections, with specific reference to regions of high Muslim concentration
Lok Sabha seats contested
Of which, seats won
Seats won in Uttar Pradesh
Of which, seats won in Upper Doaba and Rohilkhand
Source: Official reports of the Election Commission of India.

In turning its back on the mellow Hindutva charms of the senior leadership in favour of Modi’s hard-edged ideological appeal, the BJP has seemingly resigned itself to being politically more friendless than at any time since the mid-1990s. Modi signals that the BJP intends to stick by its core ideological programme and will aim to wield power relatively untrammelled by allies of infirm conviction. This requires that he should establish the BJP in a position of numerical preponderance which would put its claims beyond question. A BJP with under 150 seats in a 543-seat Lok Sabha would be a party adrift, unable to win partners to its cause. Above that threshold but under about 180, it would be in an uneasy limbo, vulnerable to demands that leadership positions be awarded to individuals with a more congenial persona than the Gujarat chief minister. Beyond 180 – perhaps more decisively at 200 seats – the BJP would be assured of the victors’ laurels and would potentially be in a position of strength from which to conduct its bargain with potential allies. To reach this number, a strong performance in U.P. is absolutely essential.
Clearly, the trend of tactical alliances between the Muslim electorate in U.P. and other the “plebeian” political formations has to be halted and reversed, for a strong BJP performance. The Muslim electorate in U.P. has an 18 percent share in the total, but in absolute numbers, a large part of the community’s electoral influence is centred in two regions of the west. Eight districts of what could be called the “Upper Doaba” (or simply the “west” in some categorisations) and ten in the Rohilkhand region account for 41 percent of the total population of Muslims in U.P.[8] In the Upper Doaba districts – Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Budh Nagar, Bulandshahr, Baghpat and Shamli -- people of the Muslim faith account for over 29 percent of the population. And in the Rohilkhand districts – Bareilly, Moradabad, Rampur, Bijnore, Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur, Buduan and Jyotiba Phule Nagar – they account for 34 percent.
These are two regions where tactical voting by the Muslims could exert a substantial influence on the electoral outcome. Unsurprisingly, the BJP has every time it has turned in a good performance in Lok Sabha contests in the state, managed to splinter the minority vote in these regions and corner a significant number of seats: 10 of 18 seats in 1991, 8 in 1996 and 13 in 1998. From 1999, when its fortunes in U.P. have begun to ebb, its decline has been mirrored in the Upper Doaba and Rohilkhand regions. Thrown into disarray by the violent mobilisation over Ayodhya and the fragmentation of all the parties they had come to regard as viable representatives of their security interests, voters of the Muslim faith have since 1999 managed to regroup and figure out a way of making their votes count. Part of project Modi for the BJP would to ensure the splintering of electoral coalitions that the Muslims of the Upper Doaba and Rohilkhand have forged in recent years.
The fuse for Muzaffarnagar’s riots, which broke a long history of communal peace, was apparently lit in an incident on August 27, after which three men ended up dead. For weeks together, very little was known about the exact sequence of events that day. There were suggestions that two youths had stalked and incessantly harassed a young woman of another community, exciting their quarry’s brother into confronting them in a public space. Angry words were exchanged, blows traded and lethal weapons unsheathed. The man of valour who had sought to defend his sister’s honour lay dead. And then came the retaliation.[9]
In another narration, the community identities between the violator of feminine honour and its defender are reversed. And in still another, a minor traffic mishap occurred that day which unleashed a violent spasm of road rage and fed into a communal estrangement that had been underway since many months, fuelled by noxious rumours. Community honour, as represented in the dignity and bodily integrity of women, was among the themes constantly played on to sharpen the growing estrangement. Rumours made up in the Hindutva ideological factory imparted a further twist, with fears unleashed of a “love jihad” launched by attractive young Muslim boys equipped with the full range of the tools of enticement – modish clothes, mobile phones and sweet-talk – to entangle young girls of the other faith. In a region of the “vanishing female”, where the sex ratio is believed to have fallen to near critical levels, this was an ideological ploy of insidious power.
Ten days since the August 27 incident that still evades an accurate factual rendition, with an intervening series of incendiary public conclaves fuelling the urge for vengeance, large parts of Muzaffarnagar district including some of the smaller market towns and villages, were engulfed in flames. In a matter of days, the violence had spread to the nearby Shamli and Meerut districts. Even Aligarh, at a fair distance from the first eruptions of violence, had its share of tension and violent affrays. 
Indeed, in the longer historical view, the narrative of the original cause may only be important for its indecisive outcome. What is more relevant is simply that as political competition intensifies in the months leading in to the general elections, local animosities are likely to be nurtured and unleashed as a matter of strategy. For the BJP it is crucial that the electoral bonding between the Muslim community and other intermediate and excluded caste groupings in the Upper Doaba and Rohilkhand is undermined. For the SP which currently holds power in U.P., it is vital to ensure that the Muslim electorate should forget its divided loyalties and resist the charms of the BSP, which has emerged as an alternative in terms of protecting its security interests. And that really is where secularism as a principle stands today: as an alternative name for a crude protection racket in one rendition, as the untrammelled play of a majoritarian instinct in another.

Amicus Curiae (2011): In the Supreme Court of India, Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction, Special Leave Petition (CRL) No 1088 of 2008, Note of the Amicus Curiae, Raju Ramachandran, January 20; posted by Outlook magazine and accessed 30 January 2014 at:
Bal (2012): Hartosh Singh Bal, “Will We Ever Know the Truth?” Open, 19 May 2012, accessed on 30 January 2014 at:
Brass (1997): Paul R. Brass, Theft of an Idol, Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Brass (2004): Paul R. Brass, “Development of an Institutional Riot System in Meerut City, 1961 to 1982”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXXIX, No 44, October 30, pp 4839-48.
Dhattiwala and Bigg (2011): Raheel Dhattiwala and Michael Bigg, “Spatial Variation in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat, 2002”, Working Paper Number 2011-06, Oxford University, Department of Sociology.
Dhattiwala (2013): Raheel Dhattiwala, “Deliberateness and Spontaneity in Violence”, The Hindu (Delhi edition), 31 December 2013, p 10 (extracted 30 January 2014 at:
Jaffrelot (2011): Christophe Jaffrelot, Religion, Caste and Politics in India, Hurst and Company, London.
LBS Academy (2004): Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, “Some Handouts on Communal Riots”, accessed on 30 January 2014 at:
Lokniti (2012): “Sixteenth Assembly Elections in Uttar Pradesh”, Economic and Political Weekly,Vol XLVII, No 14, April 7, pp 80-6.
Mander et al (2013a):  Harsh Mander, E.N. Rammohan, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, John Dayal, Sukumar Muralidharan and Seema Mustafa, (2013a): “Muzaffarnagar 2013: Violence by Political Design”, Report of a Fact Finding Team to Muzaffarnagar, 17 September, Centre for Policy Analysis, Delhi ( Also available at South Asia Citizens’ Web, extracted 30 January 2014 at:
Mander et al (2013b): Harsh Mander, E.N. Rammohan, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Anuradha Chenoy, Sukumar Muralidharan and Seema Mustafa, (2013b): “Persisting Embitterment, Faltering Processes of Justice”, Report of a Fact Finding Team to Muzaffarnagar, 6 December, Centre for Policy Analysis, Delhi (
Organiser (1985): “A Massive Hindu Mandate”, Editorial, January 6, p 1.
Ramakrishnan (2011): Nitya Ramakrishnan, “Godhra: The Verdict Analysed”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVI, No 15, April 9, pp 39-44.
SIT (2010a): Special Investigation Team, “Date 27 and 28-03-2010; Statement of Shri Narendra Modi, s/o Shri Damodardas Modi, aged about 60 years, r/o CM’s Bungalow, Sector 19, Gandhinagar”, the full transcript of Modi’s deposition was leaked to the media and posted by some among them on the document sharing website Scribd, from where it was accessed on 30 January 2014 at:  
SIT (2010b): Special Investigation Team, “Report in SIT (Crl.) No 1088/2008”, full report was obtained by the media and posted on the document sharing website Scribd, from where it was accessed on 30 January 2014 at:
Tehelka (2013): “The List of Communal Riots Under CM Akhilesh Yadav”, 11 September, extracted 30 January 2014 at:
Varadarajan (2002): Siddharth Varadarajan (editor), Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, Penguin Books, Delhi.
Varshney (2002): Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, Hindus and Muslims in India, Oxford, Delhi.
Wilkinson (2004): Steven Wilkinson, Votes and Violence, Electoral Competition and Communal Violence in India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[1] For an initial fact finding report on the Muzaffarnagar riots of September 2013, see Harsh Mander et al, 2013a; a follow-up report was put out in December 2013 (Harsh Mander, et al, 2013b). The BJP rally at Agra occurred on 21 November 2013 and was reported in real time on the online news portal Firstpost. The report is available at this writing (30 January 2014) at:

[2] By early December, deaths were being reported from the camps that the riot victims were sheltering in. See “Cold death stalks Muzaffarnagar riots victims hounded out of home”, Hindustan Times (Delhi), December 3, 2013, extracted on 30 January 2014 at: Late in December, a senior bureaucrat was quoted saying that cold was not an issue for the riot displaced, since people lived in much more adverse conditions in Siberia (see the report datelined 27 December 2013 at the NDTV newsportal, extracted on 30 January 2014 at: The entertainment extravangaza at Mulayam Singh’s home village occurred on 8 January 2014 and was widely reported in the print and online media the following day (see for instance:, extracted 30 January 2014); and the legislators’ trip to western locales began the same day (as reported online here:

[3] See the reports of 27 December 2013, for instance: “NaMo gets clean chit in Gulberg Massacre Case”, The Times of India (Delhi), p 1; and “Relief for Modi, but Zakia not giving up”, p 15.

[4] The training material, titled “Some Handouts on Communal Riots”, was posted on the website of the India Policy Institute in January 2004 and accessed on 30 January 2014.

[5] On the incident of arson, the prosecution of the alleged perpetrators and the final verdict of the sessions court, see Ramakrishnan (2011).

[6] It is interesting that the SIT also seems to have internalised the fear that the population of the main religious minority community has been increasing at a rate that could threaten the demographic balance. Illustrative, 2001 Census statistics reveal that the Muslim population of Gujarat was just over 9 percent of the total against 8.5 percent in 1981. This is hardly a rate of increase that would warrant sweeping generalisations about fertility behaviour being determined by culture, rather than socio-economic factors.

[7] It is difficult to monitor the electoral activity of the Hindutva fraternity and in particular, that of its principal ideological enforcer, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. But a strong suggestion of RSS commitments during the 1984 Lok Sabha elections is conveyed by the editorial of its principal propaganda sheet, Organiser (1985) which commented after the Congress party’s sweeping victory that the mandate spoke “for the essentially sentimental, patriotic nature of the people of India, especially the Hindu Mass (sic), for it was a conscious Hindu vote, consciously and deliberately solicited by (the Congress) as a Hindu party… And this is what steered the party to a grand victory, decimated the ‘revisionist’ BJP and reincarnated (Congress) as BJP”.

[8] For the regional classification of the U.P. constituencies and other interesting details of the 2012 legislative assembly elections, see Lokniti, 2012.

[9] These details, as also much else that follows, are dealt with in Mander (2013a).
Economic and Political Weekly, February 15 2014

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