Byline by M J Akbar : Big Chiefs
The results of the Gujarat elections appear on 23 December, and politics resumes in Delhi on the 24th. Judging by the tension on the faces of politicians, no one really believes either the polls or the exit polls. Even the bookies, who were certain the BJP would get a majority, began to cover their bets just before results were due. The miracle of a genuine election is the secrecy of public opinion. A friend who met Narendra Modi after the last ballot had been cast found him a bit withdrawn, a little less than his ebullient sarcastic self. If Modi cannot be sure of what is lying in those electronic machines, you can bet that no one else is certain.
Two points need to be flagged, before we are all exposed as wearing blinkers instead of spectacles. The Congress has everything to gain, and little to lose in Gujarat. Results are measured in the balance of expectations. No one expects the Congress to win, so if it does pull off a surprise the political momentum will shift in its favour. It is difficult to say how long this momentum will last. In 2004, the BJP had convinced itself that three sweeping victories in the states would add up to a majority at the Centre. It is still kicking itself for that mistake.
The BJP has everything to lose in Gujarat, and not much to gain. In cold terms, another BJP victory will be a fairly impressive achievement. We think of incumbency only in terms of Narendra Modi, but the Congress has been out of power in Gujarat for 17 years. Modi replaced a BJP chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, only because the incumbency factor was beginning to wear out the party already. But since hyper-expectations have been established around Modi, a defeat will destabilise the BJP while a victory will be forgotten, or attributed to poison-politics.
The second point is about result comparisons. The normal tendency, in all statistical analyses, is to compare present Assembly results with those of five years ago, in the last Assembly polls. What is missed is the general election results of 2004. The Congress won in 91 Assembly segments in the 2004 polls. In other words, it won a slim majority in Gujarat, which has 180 seats. For Modi to win, he would have to reverse a natural slide that became all too evident in 2004. The Congress, on the other hand, needs to retain its 2004 tally to emerge as an undisputed champion. Modi has to win back lost seats. Modi’s task is harder.
Those who think that the Gujarat election results will determine the date of the next general elections miss the point. The government is not being brought down by the BJP. The government is in danger because its support from the Left has wobbled. The Congress and the Left are not in conflict over Modi. Their dispute is over the nuclear deal and the strategic relationship with the United States. When the applause dies down after the Gujarat electoral curtain goes up, the debate on the future of the UPA government will return to the deal. The Gujarat elections gave the Congress a little pause for breath, but that is over.
Within the next fortnight or month, the Congress will have to indicate clearly whether it is going ahead with the nuclear deal or not. That is the decision that will determine the date of the next general elections. If the Congress does well in Gujarat, it might be encouraged to test the national waters, but it will be the wrong reason for a decision that must be based on other considerations. The more important question is: if the Congress cannot win, will it regroup within the status quo, or will it still chase the nuclear deal? Certainly the party needs a bit of time now to throw out sops to its core supporters. We are bound to hear talk of a development plan for minorities, for instance; and if there is opportunity for a budget to be placed before Parliament, we can be certain that it will reek of generosity rather than economic reform. This is politics as usual. But there is also a view that too much has been invested in the nuclear deal to let it stagnate in the corner, neither fish nor fowl. This view believes that the Congress can mobilise a vote on electricity, and turn the nuclear deal into a national mantra for an energy-starved country.
There is very little that is general in a general election now. The results in Delhi are becoming a reflection of the popularity of state governments, driven by regional issues. As the federal instincts of India sharpen, the country is being run by chief ministers rather than a Prime Minister. It is their performance that holds the key to which alliance will get how many seats. The BJP’s last hope in 2004 disappeared when the Congress won as many as 12 seats in Gujarat. It is the chief ministers who will deliver the next Prime Minister. They are the Big Chiefs of Indian politics.
A seasonal tailpiece: Since British columnists (unlike Americans or Indians) love sending up VIPs, readers and themselves, one is never too certain whether what they say is a fact, an assertion or a tease. Rod Liddle wrote in the 16 December issue of the Sunday Times of London that he had met a certain Syaikh (sic; normal people would spell this Shaikh) Muhammad bin Shalih al-Uthaymeen, who had been advising British Muslims that to say "Merry Christmas" was forbidden. Assuming that the name is correct and the item is authentic, I have news for this Syaikh.
Islam and Christianity, both Abrahamic faiths, have of course many differences, but there is one important element of doctrine in common. Islam too believes in the virgin birth. Islam does not accept that Jesus died on the cross, and obviously cannot accept Jesus as the last prophet; but the Quran says repeatedly that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. The Quran mentions Mary (Maryam) more times than the New Testament: 34 to 19. There are references to Jesus (Isa) in 93 verses spread across 15 suras (chapters). Verse 91 of sura 21 is one of the references to the virgin birth: "And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our Spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples". Verse 45 of sura 3 says: "Behold! The angels said, ‘O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and of the company of those nearest to Allah’."
The question arose: if Jesus was not born of a man (he is constantly called son of Mary) then it gave credence to the Christian belief that he was son of God. The Quran gave him the status of Adam, who was born of neither man nor woman and was yet not considered divine.
Muslims may not accept the Biblical version of the death of Jesus, but his birth is an essential component of Islamic history. So forget about that silly Syaikh with a silly spelling - and Merry Christmas!