Saturday, December 29, 2007

Electoral and Secular Values

(HT Op ed 24th Dec2007)
Electoral Parties and Secular Values
Ram Puniyani

The adjective 'Merchants of Death', was a bold and characterization of Modi/BJP politics in Gujarat. It incited various reactions, the major one stating that Congress is no clean body as its hands are also full of blood of Sikhs in the 1984 and most of the riots took place during Congress regime.
Are BJP and Congress comparable? A situation, where these parties are being put in the same category has been created due to the weak policies of Congress and projection of the image of BJP as the democratic alternative. Are these parties in the same league or is there a shade of difference which is worth recognizing?

Congress began as a secular party with the inclusion of people of all religions, and their continued association with this party during freedom movement. At the same time many a communalists formed the part of its leadership, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Dr. Moonje. Even the founder of RSS, K.B. Hedgewar was associated with it till 1934. At medium and grass root level many a Hindu communalists in particular were and are part of this party. It is this which made Nehru to warn that Congress should be cautious of those members who sound secular but are really communal. At the level of policies Congress took quite a principled secular path till the demise of Pundit Nehru, after which the slip showed regularly. The problem became apparent with Indira Gandhi's election speeches during Jammu bi-election, Rajiv Gandhi's 'when a big tree falls'; Shah Bano, shilaynyas, and Narsimha Raos' afternoon siesta when the Babri was being razed to the ground. Many a riots took place during its regime when the ruling Government either acted as the silent witness or colluded with the rioters.

While apportioning the blame of communal violence it has to be kept in mind that the riots take place due to three major factors, one the instigator and conductor, which according the inquiry commissions, (Jagmohan Reddy, Justice Madon, Vithayathil, Shrikrishna and Venugopal)mostly has been some organization which is a offshoot/associate of RSS. The second factor is the political leadership. Most of the times Congress, when in power, has been lacking the political will to control it effectively. The third factor is the police and bureaucracy, which has been regularly communalized and has been providing the umbrella to the rioters or been the active participant in the execution of the pogroms. It is not enough just to say that so and so part is responsible just because it has been in power. As far as political agenda is concerned, communalism is not the program of Congress. Its basic program remains Secularism, but its execution of those values has been lacking in will power.

BJP is the political child of RSS, which has the agenda of Hindu nation. Irrespective of its temporary mask of Gandhian Socialism, it does lapse in to the 'Hate minorities' mind set at the drop of the hat. It has the patriarch RSS and associates; VHP, Bajrang Dal, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Bajrang Dal etc, who have been communizing the mind set, which is the base of communal violence. This RSS combine has been actively initiating situations which bring in violence. It has led many a carnages and has been polarizing the communities along religious lines. The scholars of communal violence have made the pertinent observation that in the aftermath of most of the communal violence RSS combine becomes stronger in the areas where the violence has taken place. For RSS combine communalism, in overt and covert language, is its political vehicle.

One can classify the political formations/ individuals in to four broad categories on the scale of secularism. The first, and rare, category belongs to the party/individuals who proactively strive for comprehensive social justice. A synthesis of values of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Ambedkar can best describe this group, which today is being overshadowed by the other political forces.

Second, the formations like Left are genuinely secular but they have ignored the proactive measures to pursue this and so the prevalence of communal social thinking in states ruled by left. Third are secular but compromising, the major one in this category being Congress. These are mired by too many power seekers to be able to stand firmly to oppose the communal elements and land up being the accomplice, in part or in full, of the violation of secular values. The anti Sikh violence was a sort of one go phenomenon, which had more to do with the ethno-regional factors. The last category is that of BJP, aggressive, intimidating opponent of democracy and secularism, whatever its expression. Communal to the core, looking for pretexts to carry on with sectarian politics. Its biggest 'achievement' not that it is the core vehicle of communalism but that some of the political workers compare it with other democratic electoral formations. It is using the electoral space to do away with democratic values, the way Hitler did. It is the Indian face of fascism.

The subtleties of these differences point out that while we do not have the real good choice in the for electoral arena, we will have to keep putting the civic pressure for bringing in better political policies through the grass root campaigns. All the same, to compare BJP with other electoral formations will be undermining the threat of the agenda of RSS, which seeks to abolish democratic space and build a society in the image of 'glorious Hindu past', a neo brahminical construct for upholding the hegemony of elite males.

One can very well say that while communalism, the threat to democracy is becoming stronger by the day, there is a vast difference between Congress and BJP. The Congress communalism is pragmatic while BJP communalism is programmatic. While no party can be excused for its crimes, no democratic formation should be compared to BJP, as it the vehicle of RSS political agenda, the agenda of abolishing the values of Indian constitution and imposing a fascist state. BJP is in a different class by itself due to its goal, which has nothing to do with democracy i.e. concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. Unfortunately, today in electoral arena we do not have a choice between Good better and the best. We are riddled with bad, worse, worst and BJP!

(Writer is recipient of Indira Gandhi National Integration Award, 2006)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Erosion of Democracy - Modi

Erosion of Democratic Norms: A case of Modi
Ram Puniyani

Current Gujarat elections, irrespective of their
results, will remain etched in the memory of the
nation for wrong reasons. Gujarat witnessed the
burning of Sabarmati express at Godhra in Feb 2002.
The carnage which followed this train accident claimed
the lives of thousands of innocents and simultaneously
polarized Gujarat along religious lines. The process
of ghettotisation of Muslims and the fear of
minorities constructed in the minds of majority
community are staring in our face. At the same time
the threads of democratic nationalism, national
integration are breaking rapidly. While various
citizens' inquiry reports did point out the pre
planned nature of the pogrom and the role of RSS
combine led by Modi in the carnage, we could all see
the same for ourselves thanks to the Tehelka. The
consequent polarization led to the victory of the
leader of the carnage back to power in the elections
which took place a bit later. In the elections of
2002, the main opposition party, Congress did not
gather strength to take on Modi with full vigor. One
of the reasons was that Modi deflected the criticism
directed again him and against RSS combine as the
insult to 5 crore Gujartis, and his assertion was well
received in a section of society.

The Tehelka sting showed some of the perpetrators
boasting about their crimes in front of the camera,
and this made most of the people realize once again
the gravity of the crime. Now most of the society got
a direct feel of what had happened, who did it.
Society also registered that the reports of citizens
groups were on the dot in pinpointing the malaise of
Gujarat society. It was in this background that Sonia
Gandhi in her election campaign called the Modi led
BJP as the merchants of death. Modi realized that the
truth is being said after all, and tried to raise the
communal and criminal sentiments by justifying the
extra judicial killing of Sorabuddin, who was killed
in a fake encounter by the police.

The ploy was that since a section of society has been
communized enough, the illegal act of killing someone
will get him sympathy votes. He took 'credit' for this
'bravery' of killing of Soharabuddin and his wife.
Human rights workers raised the issue of Modi
communalizing and criminalizing the people's mindset.
And as is his wont, he presented the criticism against
him as the insult of people of Gujarat, of Gujarat

Usual damage control exercises unrolled, he has been
quoted out of context, he does not justify the extra
judicial killings etc. But the damage was done and
election commission took a serous note of it. The
frail nature of legal mechanism, as to how a
democratically elected chief minister, takes oath in
the name of constitution, than openly incites the
public and tries to bask in the 'glory' of this
illegal act done by state machinery, is there for all
to see.

The larger issue of democratic norms, morality and
polity are put at the backburner, with the leaders
doing their electoral arithmetic of what will help
them more in getting the power. Now the issue can be
discussed at the level of legalities and also at the
level of electoral arithmetic. All these do have their
importance but one also needs to be concerned about
the deeper and broader issues related to our
constitution, as to what is happening to the values of
democracy enshrined in our constitution?

In Gujarat the legal norms have been put aside in
matters of rehabilitation and in the post violence
justice. In 'regular' life patterns, now a section of
Muslims are willing to bend on their knees to survive,
willing to 'forgive' unilaterally, while no body is
caring to ask for their forgiveness. The 'charisma' of
Modi is on the rise. He was keeping the communal card,
under wraps till the word Merchants of death was
hurled upon him. And then he unraveled his communal
face with full force just before the polling. All this
sounds so unusual but we are becoming used to the
prevalence of these things. Does it ring familiar to
something which happened in history? While there are
lot of differences from what happened in Germany some
similarities are too glaring.

The targeting of minorities, the total abolition of
democratic space, the social common sense directed
against the minorities and secularists, and consensus
built around the fascist state are very similar. 'Kill
them, kill them' is what Modi could easily extract
from the section of crowd for Soharabuddin. What
distinguishes Gujarat from the Germany's state of
affairs in 30s and 40s of last century is that here
the process is taking place at a slower pace and the
same process is on with different intensities in
different states of the country. So can we use the
term Chronic Fascism in Gujarat in contrast to acute
fascism of Germany. Whole of Germany was totally
gripped by this politics, while in India Gujarat is
worst but all the same in other states also this
fascism is strangulating democratic space, though with
different degrees of intensity. The biggest similarity
is the 'successes' of a fascist party, which in
Germany took the pretext of race and here it is
wearing the garb of religion. Interestingly earlier
and even now the fascist parties are using the
democratic space to come to power, to precisely
abolish the same in due course.

During last two and a half decades the rise of right
wing politics has taken place on the pretext of
Hinduism, while it has nothing to do with the humane
streams of Hinduism. It claims to be for Hindus, while
majority of Hindus have become victim of this
intimidating politics. It reflects the state of
erosion of our democratic norms and gradual
strengthening of the forces which do talk about
democracy but are deeply wedded to the RSS, the
organization which is opposed to democracy and wants
to bring Hindu nation. That the concept of Hindu
nation is for Hindus, is just a pretext. It
essentially aims to abolish the values of liberty
equality and fraternity and strengthens the hold of
section of Hindus, the elite, males, on the whole
society. The trick is the agenda of a small dominant
section of society has been propagated as being for
all Hindus.

Coming to Gujarat , one can clearly make out that there
is a slow but dangerous march towards a fascist state.
The classical fascism which one witnessed in Germany
and Italy in the early decades of last century was
marked by the targeting of minorities, of social
rights groups/parties and at the same time doing away
with all democratic norms. It created a terrorizing
atmosphere, where the handful ruled the roost with the
charisma of leader like Hitler, who swayed the people,
worked and he got the anti democratic things accepted
by people in the initial part of the rule, till
Germany itself collapsed under the weight of the
fascist boots. Such politics does discover and project
a single charismatic leader, in Germany it was Hitler,
in Gujarat it is Modi. Incidentally RSS nationalism
also took lot of inspiration from Hitler's
Nationalism, "German national pride has now become the
topic of the day. To keep up the purity of nation and
its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging
the country of Semitic races-The Jews. National pride
at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has
also shown how neigh impossible it is for races and
cultures, having differences going to the root, to be
assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for
us in Hindustan to learn and profit by." (We or Our
nationhood Defined,1938)

The politics of RSS combine has cleverly adopted
itself to the Indian situation and has gone on to
create a fear of the miniscule minority. It is quite
similar to Hitler creating a phobia against Jews,
holding them responsible for the plight of Germany,
and using that as the center of his policies
terrorizing the whole nation into submission to the
agenda of fascism, abolition of the concept of rights,
something which is the life and breath of democracy,
something which is a shield for the average people to
survive. While a large section of Gujarat, Minorities,
dalits, adivasis and women are suffering the middle
and affluent classes are able to get their way through
the agenda of vibrant Gujarat !

The analogy does not end here. The terrorizing
atmosphere created in Gujarat does remind us of the
status of minorities. Now the large sections of
minorities feel that they have been relegated to the
second class citizenship status. Their insecurity is
the index of our democratic ethos. It is correctly
pointed out that if you want to see the state of
health of democracy, have a look at the status of its


Issues in Secular Politics

December 2007 II

For Publication/Circulation

Modi the Model?

Modi the Model?
December 11, 2007

The last time the state of Gujarat went to the polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment to win re-election. Now, the BJP is running largely on a campaign of its core competency: economic reform. That's a far better model for the party to follow nationally.

Whether the BJP's reinvention will take root is another story, but the elections in Gujarat this week -- one of India's biggest states -- should provide a good guide. The current chief minister, Narendra Modi, is a controversial figure who played a role in the BJP's fall from grace nationally. As chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, his government stood idly by while more than 2,000 people died in ethnic violence.

That massacre was a key factor in voters ejecting the BJP from national office two years later -- a loss from which the party still hasn't recovered. But it didn't hurt Mr. Modi back home. He campaigned for re-election in Gujarat later that year by igniting anti-Muslim sentiment in a majority-Hindu state. Unusually for Indian state elections, where voters usually turf out incumbents, he won.

Mr. Modi has never fully addressed his government's mishandling of the massacre, which lasted for days while the police stood idly by. An October expose in Tehelka, an Indian magazine, even alleged that Mr. Modi was personally involved in the killings. Mr. Modi declined to comment on the piece. Whatever happened, Mr. Modi seems to have learned a political lesson from the 2002 riots. He spent the next five years playing down his Hindutva, or "Hinduness," streak and getting down to the business of running his state.

By and large, he's done an excellent job. Gujarat grew over 11% last year on the back of an influx of foreign investment and a robust manufacturing sector. In a country with subpar infrastructure, the Modi government has built roads, ensured a steady supply of electricity, eased labor restrictions and secured regular water supplies for rural areas, to name a few achievements.

That's put Mr. Modi in good stead for this week's election. The BJP holds 127 of its 182 seats in the state assembly and polls predict it will be returned to power. If he wins convincingly, Mr. Modi could emerge as a national leader for the BJP.

That might not be a bad thing, though Mr. Modi's history makes him a highly unlikely future prime minister. Mr. Modi achieved economic progress in Gujarat in large part because he wasn't afraid to tackle India's sacred cow: public-sector corruption. The chief minister put systems for public accountability of civil servants in place, installed more courts to work through a backlog of lawsuits and cut out whole layers of inefficient bureaucrats from decision-making processes.

That hasn't always won him friends within his party. A clutch of BJP members of Parliament have jumped ship to the Congress Party, which sees this election as a crucial vote that could boost its national power base. Mr. Modi has also lost support from two local castes, though the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad -- a Hindu group -- reluctantly pledged support this month.

Given that, you'd think that the Congress Party would feel emboldened to fight on core local issues, like education and health care. Instead, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi called Mr. Modi a "merchant of death" at a rally in Gujarat earlier this month, reigniting ethnic tensions. Mr. Modi fired back, calling Mrs. Gandhi a "guardian of terrorists." The Election Commission is investigating both of them.
Both parties know they're treading a fine line. No one wants to see a repeat of the 2002 riots, least of all Mr. Modi's BJP, which sorely needs an electorial win. Mr. Modi's record shows that the BJP's economic platform works. But if the party wants to achieve a national platform again, it needs to address its past. If it did that, even voters outside of Gujarat might give the BJP a second chance.

How delightful to read the phrase "running dogs" again! I thought such language went out of fashion with Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall....

Correct me, if I am wrong, but Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao - whose rule, I hope you will agree was brutal and ruthless, - were they neoliberals?

I don't want to resort to hyperbole here; suffice it to say that many investors would not like a government like Modi's. A government that maintains law and order by ignoring riots and public property, which fails to prosecute criminals, raises insurance costs for everyone, and adds the element of unpredictability in business, and is hardly liked the favorite of businesses. Narayana Murthy, Anu Agha, and Deepak Parekh are three among many people (others not well-known) from the private sector, who like economic liberalization, who don't have time for a leader like Modi. Modi claiming credit for industrial peace in Gujarat is a joke; the credit for that goes to the nearly century-old tradition built by Gandhi and his Majoor Mahajan, which is a pacifist, non-violent union (what else would one expect?), and Gujarati entrepreneural talent as well as industrial base are not Modi's gift to the state.

Salil/Still in LatAm.


Neoliberalism's darlings have quite often been brutal, ruthless
killers. Why are we surprised? From Suharto to Marcos to Fujimori the
record is legion. Brutish, ruthless, killers are often the most
effective, loyal, running dogs of imperialism. Modi's so-called
"record" on "development" is perhaps mouth-watering to the investor
class and a few beneficiaries in the middle class, but for the working
majority its a disaster. And of course, the brutality, hatred and
violent thuggishness this Sangh Parivarite Neanderthal brought to the
lives of Gujarati Muslims can never be forgotten, no matter how the
cheerleaders of capitalism try to gawk on about his alleged
"achievements." Shame on them for even considering whitewashing this

raja swamy

It is surprising educated individuals end up making a mockery by only seeing the coin on one side, what human rights are you talking about? Terrorist given justice quicker then Indian courts taking their own merry time or getting rid of the nuisance ASAP!?? I'm obviously referring to the much hyped controversial encounter of Sorabuddin. "Other" states in India who harbour these nonsense at whole are falling short in showing results and its a proven fact, Narendra Modi proved otherwise because he has the support of people, those who voted him in. He has never fallen short in giving out to them, it is only certain section of colleagues from his party and the anti-modi brigade (majority of pseudo secular Media, NGOs, the so called human rights activists). For a start let us all come to the term with the reality of him being real and he being accepted even after "Gujarat 2002" (the way you term it!) by his people. Your worry is because you get feed in with a certain ideologues, articles, figures and statements time and again which gets floated by those who think they got left out in what he is cherishing today, the fruits of thriving economy and solid development base to see the state being number one in all sectors, be it social economic well being of Gujaratis or the local non-Gujarati residents, be it the foreign investments or Indian biggies investing full hearty... These were the words from Ratan Tata saying "If you are not in Gujarat you are stupid" during an investor summit during January, watch it here:

Lets face the fact, Narendra Modi is real and he is going to be there for a long time to come.


Taming Gujarat’s lion

Taming Gujarat’s lion

Having lost key support, Modi’s position has become tenuous.
With the Gujarat assembly polls drawing close, the question on everyone’s lips is whether Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who’s being projected as an iconic figure by a section of the BJP, will be able to repeat the feat of 2002 elections. Besides facing a spirited challenge from the Congress, Modi also has to overcome resentment from a large segment of the Sangh parivar.

In doing so, he has to bring on board the elements opposed to him and ensure that the BJP and the rest of the Sangh put up a united face in the polls. As things stand, this looks difficult. Veterans like Keshubhai Patel appear indifferent to the elections in view of the central leadership’s support to Modi. And the RSS, despite wanting to help the BJP retain power in Gujarat, is reluctant to wholeheartedly back someone who has tried to project himself as a larger-than-life character at the cost of the organisation.

Surprisingly, the perception within large sections of the BJP in the state is quite different from that in Delhi. According to many Sangh activists, Modi is facing the biggest battle of his life, with all odds tilted heavily against him. He does not have the support of either his entire party in the state, or that of the Patels, the most influential Gujarati community, or even of the Kolis, also an important factor for the BJP to win. The adivasis who had opted for the saffron brigade the last time, thanks to some very good groundwork done by the RSS, too are having second thoughts on supporting him.

Strangely, the Gujarat election is turning out to be a Modi versus Modi contest, where one is either with him or against him. Those supporting him include a powerful section of the media. And the inability of the Congress to project someone as a chief ministerial candidate is also helping him. It may just result in Modi surging ahead in this keenly-watched election, which could have ramifications for national politics.

The Congress, in its keenness to dislodge Modi, seems to have thrown caution to the winds and has even agreed to give tickets to BJP dissidents, thereby diluting its commitment to fight communalism. While the number of BJP activists getting tickets is not known as of now, the Congress’s nervousness is evident from the fact that it is ready to compromise on its basic principles. This may be used against the Congress by other secular parties like the Samajwadi Party.

But Modi’s troubles are far from over and several BJP veterans believe that those seeing him as the victor forget that no individual can be greater than the organisation. Modi has created a myth of invincibility around himself and after the code of conduct coming into operation, even his meetings have started shrinking since government agencies that used to manage his crowds cannot do it anymore.

Modi’s position is also being threatened by the activities of the Sardar Patel Utkas Samiti. This group, led by Gordhanbhai Zadaphia, his erstwhile Home Minister, and two businessmen, Jeevraj Dhrukawala and Vasantbhai Gajera, comprises BJP sympathisers opposed to him. The Samiti had organised a massive rally of more than two lakh people in Surat, which was also meant to be attended by Keshubhai Patel, who eventually pulled out. Another rally in Rajkot was subsequently organised. Now, the Samiti has decided to cover 142 towns in the state to mobilise opinion against Modi, who is being projected as a power-hungry autocrat.

Then, there is a section of the Swaminarayan sect opposing him. And if reports emanating from Gujarat are accurate, even the followers of Asa Ram Bapu may come out openly against him. Keshubhai Patel, who is now silent about his opposition to Modi, is, however, understood to have conveyed the ground-level reality to L.K. Advani and RSS leaders. His son, Bharat, who was offered a ticket, has also decided not to contest the polls.

Modi’s detractors have likened him to Mulayam Singh Yadav, the former UP CM who was considered strong, but was defeated during the last polls. Arrogance and corruption are never tolerated by the people, his detractors say, and give the example of Om Prakash Chautala in Haryana, who, despite having done much in terms of development, was trounced by the Congress in 2005.

The Congress perhaps does not realise that Modi can be humbled and should stop playing a card that identifies it with only one community. No party can win if it is unable to carry the masses with it. It has to come up with a strategy that will help resuscitate it in the state. Failing this, its fortuneswill suffer a setback not just in Gujarat, but also in the rest of the country.

But Modi is unlikely to give in easily. He is a born fighter and it matters little to him how he attains victory. Under the garb of projecting himself as the saviour of Gujarati pride is a cunning, machiavellian and decisive man. He also wields a charisma that inspires his followers, even if their numbers are dwindling.

He had snatched the chief ministership from Keshubhai Patel by outfoxing his colleagues in the BJP and the RSS. He is certainly not going to surrender meekly. He knows victory will take him on to the national stage. But to achieve this, Modi has to first earn the love of the people of Gujarat. In the end, they will decide what is good or bad for them. Between us.

India's Voters Torn on Modi

India's Voters Torn Over Politician,8599,1693370,00.html

In many ways, Gujarat is the best and worst of India. For years the state, which juts westward into the Arabian Sea, has been one of the most economically forward-looking regions in the country; its diamond-cutting and textile industries earn India hundreds of millions of dollars in exports. But Gujurat was also the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence since independence, when communal riots killed as many as 2,000 people — most of them Muslim — in 2002.

The figure at the center of the election, and perhaps the most controversial politician in India, is Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is hailed by his supporters as a modernizer who has built new roads, brought electricity and streetlights to villages and attracted new business to Gujarat. To his detractors, Modi will always be the man who stoked the sectarian tensions that made the 2002 riots possible. The riots followed a train car fire that killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims. Within hours of the blaze, later blamed on a cooking fire accident, Modi called it a "pre-planned act" against Hindus that the "culprits will have to pay for" — a position he sticks to today. Whatever the truth, the carnage that followed was terrible. In 2004, following an investigation into the incident, India's Supreme Court ruled that the chief minister was "a modern Nero who watched while Gujarat burned." A recent report by investigative magazine Tehelka went further, blaming the violence directly on senior BJP politicians and sympathetic police officers. One BJP politician, unaware that he was being recorded by a Tehelka reporter, allegedly said that Modi had told him that he and his colleagues had three days "to do whatever we wanted." Modi has dismissed the conclusions of the Tehelka story, though many of its specific charges remain unchallenged.

The current poll is, in many ways, a referendum on Modi and whether his modernization policies outweigh his reputation for ethnic demagoguery. Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Indian National Congress party, has spent days campaigning around the state and has accused Modi and his party of playing on communal tensions to win votes. The Gujarat government, she said, were "merchants of death" — a charge that Modi and his party say is outrageous. Gandhi's comment and one by Modi that seemed to endorse the controversial police killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a young Muslim man who was allegedly wrongly branded a terrorist, earned the ire of the Election Commission, who asked both leaders to explain how their comments did not contravene a code of conduct that politicians must adhere to during polling. Modi says his comments were a political response to Gandhi's criticism, though a petition against him was filed with the Supreme Court and will be heard on Wednesday.

State elections in India are usually decided on very different issues than national elections; the country is vast and in many ways fragmented. But with the ruling Congress Party suffering from a deadlock with its own Communist allies over a controversial nuclear deal with the U.S., the Gujarat vote will give Congress leaders a good idea of what popular support they still enjoy. If Congress does well — polls suggest that the election is too close to call — it would embolden the party to call a national poll early in 2008 to break the impasse with its coalition partners. If Congress does badly, it may try to hold on for another year.

Its main role, though, will be to assess the level of support for Modi. The chief minister has recently been hit by the defection to the Congress Party of several senior BJP members, who describe their former leader as autocratic and megalomaniacal. "He wants power and for that he will do anything," says Dhirubhai Gajera, one of the BJP rebels, who spent a recent Saturday afternoon campaigning for his seat in Surat, a city of some 4 million people. "He overstates what he has done for this state in terms of progress, and even where there has been progress it has gone to the rich, not the poor."

That's rubbish, says Atul Shah, a BJP member from the neighboring state of Maharashtra, who was in Surat to support his Gujarat colleagues in the days before the first round of voting on Tuesday Dec. 11. "Gujarat is a model state and Modi has proved himself 10 out of 10." Pravin Naik, head of the BJP's Surat branch, says the idea that Modi was part of communal tensions or violence is a "whole myth." "There has not been a single incident of communal violence since [the 2002 riots]," he says. "Narendra Modi is the only competent chief minister in India." The results of this month's poll will tell how many agree with him.