In Modiland, the vote seems unpredictable only till the count
Ajay Singh | December 15, 2017
Assembly elections in Gujarat, since 2002, have been like Churchill’s description of Russia – with a little twist: wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but eventually a non-riddle.
They have been following the same script. When the campaign begins, the outcome looks utterly unpredictable. As the electioneering progresses, as Narendra Modi gets aggressive, his critics shore up expectations of something incredible round the corner. Commentators discover a variety of factors that will ensure the BJP’s loss. As counting begins, it’s time for, not climax, but anti-climax. Within no time, everybody comes to realise that, of course, this is what was going to happen in any case. Gujarat elections, in short, begin and also proceed like an unputdownable whodunnit thriller, but end like a good old-fashioned romance. Frederick Forsyth and Jane Austen in one volume.
As a journalist, I have covered the Gujarat elections since 2002, when polling took place amid unusually high polarisation in the aftermath of the Godhra train-burning tragedy and the ensuing communal riots. It was the first time Modi was leading the BJP to elections. When he was brought in the previous year to arrest the sagging popularity of the party, he had famously said that he would have to work like playing one-day international cricket and not a test match. Would he deliver? Would Gujarat accept Modi’s brand of politics, with ‘Gaurav Yatras’ in every district appealing to Hindu pride? Will his sharp personality and oratory, well orchestrated campaigning and other unorthodox ways charm voters? Media and analysts grappled with these questions
quite intently. Many had doubts.
When the election results came, they all invented their own logic to become post-facto wiser. They said Modi had merely exploited the communal divide, conveniently ignoring the fact that the state had been living with the divide at least since the series of riots in the 1980s, if not in 1969, and none of them gave the BJP 127 seats. Some branded the phenomenon as ‘Moditva’ which replaced Hindutva. Implicit in the coinage of this word was the view that Modi had developed his own variant of Hindutva which is distinct from the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva. Obviously, this postulation sounded journalistically interesting to attract readers but was wide off the mark from ground realities.
Modi, a former RSS pracharak, was too groomed in the values of the Sangh to venture a deviation. In fact, he was effectively implementing the Hindutva vision within the parameters outlined in the constitution. Of course, he was quite aware of his obligations and duties after the Godhra and post-Godhra episodes. That was precisely why, after the 2002 assembly elections, he focused extensively on rebuilding the state BJP’s organisational structure and honing it into an election-fighting machine – and at the same time he showed his unflinching commitment to development of Gujarat, making ‘vikas’ his trademark. And there’s little doubt by the time he left the state in 2014, he had transformed it, politically, economically and socially.
In the 2007 assembly elections, it was the same script again. A section of media and commentators nurtured hopes of high drama ending in their preferred outcome. They again fished out a variety of reasons why Modi was losing. For example, anti-incumbency, a factor that has been recycled every time. For example, in one of his tough decisions, he had undertaken power sector reforms, entailing tariff hike for farmers too. Peasants were on the warpath, with Patels or Patidars forming the vanguard. (Read more on this in the dispatches) Modi had become over-confident and farmers were going to teach him a lesson now, the commentariat gleefully reasoned.
When the campaigning was at its peak, I travelled across Saurashtra and south Gujarat and found a large section of Patidars, tribals and scheduled castes alienated from the BJP fold. I did feel the BJP would lose this election. But something else was going on below the surface. Bank on a politician to read such subtle signs. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who was campaigning for the lone JD (U) candidate, Chhotubhai Vasava, in Jhagadiya of south-central Gujarat, remarked candidly: “I don’t see any reason for Modi to get defeated. When my chopper landed here, I was amazed to see the degree of development work he has accomplished. If he loses, there will not be any incentive for a chief minister to bother with developmental work.”
Once the results came, everybody thought, oh, Modi was winning anyway. Those who had predicted a Congress win found a facile explanation. The then Congress president Sonia Gandhi had deployed the epithet of “Maut ka Saudagar (merchant of death)” for Modi, in reference to the police encounter killings of alleged terrorists in the state, especially of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. Modi, with his far better connect with the masses, pounced upon this opportunity and, like in countless other instances, turned the tables on the Congress. In analysts’ view, the state’s opposition party, firmly ensconced at the centre, was giving a tough fight, but eventually lost because of Sonia’s comment which once again took the state back to communal polarisation.
It is perhaps this tendency of the chatterati – finding reasons why Modi is bound to lose – that makes a Gujarat election a riddle and a mystery till the votes are counted and the game turns out to be a non-enigma all along. Another common thread running across all assembly elections since 2002 is that the debate in each of them is over Modi – even in 2017 when he is no longer the chief minister. Implicit in it is the failure of the opposition to offer a counter-narrative.
That Modi has been winning elections on account of his distinctly different and efficient governance is something a section of analysts and intellectuals, afflicted by an incurable case of political myopia, refuse to accept. ‘Modi has not done anything great and he has only been following in the footsteps of his predecessors. In any case, Gujarat has always been a development-oriented state’ is the refrain of a group of intellectuals whose anti-Modi stance has turned into a vocation.
Of course, Modi, hemmed in by adversaries who resort to every trick of the trade to run him down, has devised his own innovative ways of counterattacks. He does not hesitate to stoop low in order to conquer. He knows that everything is fair in war and elections, and the vote count is what finally counts. Hence his reference to Pakistan is a clever camouflage to polarise the electorate. Of course, there is nothing objectionable in his remarks, as he is perfectly within constitution to talk about a country which is perceived to be enemy.
At the same time he is conscious of the fact that there is a desperate attempt by his adversaries to divide Hindus on caste lines. The Congress has propped many caste groups and resorted to so-called soft Hindutva to forge a social coalition which can pose a challenge to Modi. In this setting, it would be rather absurd to find fault with Modi’s formulation, while endorsing Rahul Gandhi’s indiscretions as legitimate campaign tactics.
The Gujarat election has become a high-stake gamble for Rahul as he takes over as the party president days before the poll verdict. For Modi, much is at stake as the outcome can determine his performance for the rest of his tenure till 2019. Given that, it is a momentous election for the rest of us too.
No doubt, every election comes with its own context, and this time there are more complications at play than the previous three. I have sought to capture them in dispatches from the ground. Needless to say, it is rather naïve to predict the election result on the basis of a miniscule sample of voters one interacts with. It would be better to read the dispatches like a travelogue which will invariably have a degree of subjectivity despite the writer’s best efforts to resist it.
(The article appears in the December 31, 2017 issue)
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