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The pride of a nation

Regional politics and identity has always been an important factor on the national scene but the new interpretation given by people like Narendra Modi could portend trouble for the country, writes V. GANGADHAR.


MUCH to the exasperation of political pundits, pollsters and media persons, who predicted a close electoral battle in the recent State Assembly polls in Gujarat, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi, scored an impressive victory, capturing nearly two-thirds of the seats. He was the automatic choice for the Chief Minister's post once more.

Modi, who took on the national media, national and international shock over the communal killings in the State early last year and scepticism within his party, relied on a single weapon in his campaign. Not the much-vaunted `Hindutva' but his appeal to the "pride" of five crore Gujaratis. In public meetings and interviews, Modi constantly referred to the attacks on his Government. According to him, these were unnecessary attacks on the "Gujarati pride". Dressed in traditional costumes and sitting atop of a truck converted to resemble a chariot, Modi thundered, " The five crore people of Gujarat had been humiliated, their pride hurt. The only way to restore this pride is to vote for me, restore me to power and teach these anti-Gujarat people a lesson."

It was hard for most of us to understand what Modi was referring to. Had Gujarat and its people achieved anything remarkable in the fields of governance, politics, elimination of corruption, development, education, representation in the armed forces or in the fields of art and culture? The only events that pushed the State into the limelight were the Godhra burning followed by savage communal riots.

Modi's concept of pride, which was propagated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal (BD) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), lay in the presumption that Gujarat should be proud of the fact it had taught the Muslims not to misbehave and provoke the Hindus. This was what happened in the riots when Muslims including women, children and old people were brutally killed over the suspicion and allegation that Muslim elements had set fire to the train at Godhra.

Not many of us would accept such an interpretation of "pride", but Gujarat was different, and its people had been brainwashed by Hindu fanatics from the time L.K. Advani organised his rath yatra from the Somnath temple. Perhaps their feelings of inferiority in not excelling in any field except business and making money were assuaged by the VHP and RSS propaganda that what happened in the State would teach Muslims to `behave'. So, when the riots were condemned all over the world, Modi could interpret it as an attack on Gujarati pride, which could be restored only by voting for the BJP. It was like the backward southern states in the United States taking pride in the activities of the racist Ku Klux Klan and endorsing its lynching of Blacks.

Surprising but true, regional pride hinges on such issues. As the Congress (I) began losing its political clout and non-Congress and coalition governments cropped up, regionalism came to the fore. Regional politicians found it was easy to arouse people on issues like regional pride. The government in New Delhi, people were told, never understood or cared for the aspirations of the people of Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh.

The importance of regional pride was dramatically highlighted when Rajiv Gandhi, during a visit to Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980's, openly slighted the then Congress (I) Chief Minister Anjiah. Local Congress bosses were embarrassed but had to keep quiet. The incident, however, had unexpected repercussions. The popular film hero, N.T.Rama Rao, said he could not tolerate such an insult to "Andhra Pride".

He started the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and toured the state in a make shift "Chaitanya Ratham", whipping up regional feelings and stressing the issue of pride. In eight months, the well-entrenched Congress was routed in the Assembly elections, the TDP came to power and NTR, who had no political experience, became the Chief Minster.

That he turned out to be a disaster in his new avatar was not relevant. What was proved was that regional pride could be an explosive issue in the turbulent politics of India. The Congress had no answer to the regional pride blitz and lost a State, which had stood by it even during and after the Emergency. Congress leaders in the State also believed national politics were dominated by the Hindi-speaking North Indian leaders. So, they had no defence against the TDP's use of national pride.

Regional pride can be exploited even in States, which did not have any specific issues to highlight. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties used the "superiority" of the Tamil language to whip up regional pride. The Dravidian movement owed much of its popularity and progress to Dravidian publications, films and theatre, which glorified Tamil and the superiority of the Dravidian culture. How could a region that possessed such an incomparable language bow and scrape to States where people spoke the inferior Hindi? But today, the wooing of the BJP by the Dravidian parties has reduced the clout of the language used to propagate regional pride.

Historical personalities, like Shivaji, have also been used to whip up regional sentiments. While almost all the political parties contributed to the deification of Shivaji Maharaj, the Shiv Sena went one step further. Every important institution was named after him. Shivaji was, no doubt, a great historical figure, but why name railway stations and airports after him, when he lived in an era where people used horses, or walked?

The logic was that, when you have nothing else to further your cause, use issues related to regional pride. With the collapse of the Congress, the national element in politics took a beating. Regional parties are here to stay. Playing the regional pride card cannot be avoided. But national unity could be in jeopardy if leaders like Narendra Modi use the issue to divide the nation, its people and its time-honoured tolerance. If regional pride is used to cover up negative qualities and lack of genuine achievements, India could be in trouble.

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