Gujarat Elections: How disasters have redrawn the state’s political fault lines

Tracing the rise of RSS and Modi, from Morbi floods of 1979 to earthquake of 2001

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Ajay Singh | December 8, 2017 | Surat


#earthquake   #BJP   #Amit Shah   #environment   #Narendra Modi   #elections   #politics   #Gujarat  
Modi and Shah at the BJP Central Election Committee Meeting in New Delhi (Photo: bjp.org)
Modi and Shah at the BJP Central Election Committee Meeting in New Delhi (Photo: bjp.org)

A calamity in the times of intense politics, particularly just ahead of elections, is the worst reckoner of history. Luckily, the Cyclone Ockhi that hit the southern coast of Gujarat earlier this week is a feeble one that blew over just before the campaign for the first phase of polls in the state ended.  

But the fear of this probable calamity was a grim reminder of how the state’s politics is shaped by either manmade or natural disasters in the past. There is an interesting anecdote in an outstanding book “No One Had a Tongue to Speak” that chronicles one of the worst floods caused by the breaking of a dam over the Machchu river that wiped out Morbi township, the country’s ceramic hub, in Saurashtra region in 1979. 
 
The story recounted by researchers Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten goes thus: “Just a short distance upstream of the dam site, a small hummock – in truth, little more than a large mound of dirt – punctuated the flat plain that extended to the east from Machchu river. For years, a bald, white-bearded ascetic had made his home in a tiny hermitage on the hill. The man and the physical feature had become synonymous, such that the hill was sometimes known as Jog Bapu’s hummock. People had come from miles around to seek his blessings and advice on the matters financial, medical, spiritual, familial and existential. The old man had been shocked, then, to discover that the government intended to unceremoniously inundate his living space, submerging his sacred hermitage all the way up to the triangular flag that capped its dome. He had seethed for months, his thick eyebrows furrowing and his mouth scowling somewhere behind an overgrown beard. When finally forced to relocate, he had allegedly vowed, ‘This dam will break, Morbi will break.’ Joga Bapu was ignored by engineers and the state bureaucracy as inconsequential rant of a sadhu. Joga Bapu’s curse was prophetic.” 
 
The breach in the Machchu dam brought in a tectonic shift in the state politics. Though the story of Joga Bapu has become a kind of folklore thanks to meticulous research in academics, few know that the floods in Morbi had spawned a new politics in the state. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which was quite diffident in Gujarat after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi found a firm toehold in the state after this disaster. 
 
Old-timers still recall the manner in which the RSS cadre was deployed to carry out the relief operations in the entire region. After floods that are believed to have killed over 2,000 people, Morbi became a ghost city and stinking hell. When the then prime minister Indira Gandhi visited the area, she covered her nose with a handkerchief. That image is recounted in this election to present a contrast between the Congress and those reared in the values of the Sangh Parivar. 
 
Few however know that prime minister Narendra Modi, then a RSS pracharak, was on a tour to south India at the time of the tragedy. When he heard the news, he rushed back to Gujarat and personally monitored the relief and rescue operation for months on end. His organisational skill was on full display during the crisis when he organised efforts to collect relief material from all over the state and ensured effective delivery to victims through the RSS cadre. Of course, the Morbi disaster was the first calamity that firmly established the RSS as an organisation which needed to be adored and not shunned. 
 
But the acceptance of the RSS did not result in expansion of its political influence. The Bhartiya Jan Sangh (BJS) (and later the BJP) took more than a decade to consolidate its presence in the state. The obvious reason for the people’s reluctance to support either the BJS or subsequently the BJP stemmed from the absence of iconic state leaders like Madhavsinh Solanki, Chimanbhai Patel and Amarsinh Chaudhary of the Congress. It was only in the late nineties that Keshubhai Patel emerged as a powerful leader in his own right though his influence was limited to certain pockets dominated by Patels in Saurashtra. However, Modi’s transition from the RSS to the BJP in 1986 introduced a new dynamism which he had cultivated while supervising the rescue and relief operation in Morbi. The BJP weaved a new narrative which was an effective counter to brazen casteism known as the KHAM formula of Solanki and opportunism and corruption personified by Chimanbhai Patel. Keshubhai Patel emerged as the popular face of the BJP till another natural disaster – the 2001 earthquake – struck Gujarat with Kutch and parts of Saurashtra practically razed to the ground. 
 
Modi as a general secretary of the BJP at the national level rushed from Delhi to the state only to get a lukewarm response from the Keshubhai Patel regime. He, however, organised relief camps and mobilised workers on large scale to initiate operations at a time when the state government was completely paralysed. The earthquake proved to be the undoing of Keshubhai Patel and led to the emergence of Modi as the new leader of the state. The manner and speed in which Modi later rebuilt Bhuj, Anjar and other towns of Kutch was extraordinary. Within less than five years, the cities destroyed by the earthquake were literally resurrected from the rubble. Since then Modi has built an effective disaster management system in Gujarat that gives robust response at the time of crisis like the Surat floods of August 2006. However, he always relies on his party workers to reach out to the victims. 
 
There is no doubt that in the process of party-building in his unique style, Modi emerged as a cult figure in the state. Those who see Modi as an outcome of a particular brand of Hindutva tend to conveniently forget calamities that redefined the state’s politics and gradual assimilation of the RSS-BJP combine in Gujarat’s society in the past four decades. Of course, Gujarat became Modi’s citadel not in a day. And the party has a very powerful and dynamic organisational structure which is not cut off from the ground. 
 
This is the precise reason why Modi invoked cooperative spirit of Gujarati society when he appealed party workers to fan out and assist people if Cyclone Ockhi causes any damage. He kept Wednesday – the day when the cyclone was expected to have maximum impact – off from his campaigning schedule. Rahul Gandhi and others also followed suit. Needless to say, the fear of a disaster served as a reminder for people of Gujarat about the crises that have redefined the contours of the state’s politics. 

[A version of this article first appeared on FirstPost.com]

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