Rupani says those belittling the BJP’s victory in assembly elections were failing to gauge the pulse of the people.
In the post-Modi phase of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani is the first BJP leader to lead the party in assembly elections and seek a fresh mandate. The results in December were rather underwhelming as the BJP managed to win only 99 seats, down from 115, in the 182-member house. Yet, the BJP can take solace from the fact that it succeeded in countering anti-incumbency after more than two decades of nearly uninterrupted rule.
Contrary to his first stint as chief minister when he looked somewhat tentative and taciturn, Rupani now seems to have found his bearing. In a freewheeling interview at his official residence in Gandhinagar the day before he attended a conference of BJP chief ministers and deputy chief ministers in Delhi on February 28, Rupani exuded confidence and pointed out that those belittling the BJP’s victory in assembly elections were failing to gauge the pulse of the people. Edited excerpts from the interview:
To start with, do you agree that the December 2017 assembly elections were a very close fight and it was tough for you to win this time?
Look, in the last four years all the elections that took place had a very clear mandate. All of it had an anti-establishment and anti-incumbency mandate. You could see that in Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, where Samajwadi Party (SP), National Conference (NC) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) were voted out of power by the people. Similarly, in Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress was voted out. In none of these states the incumbents won the elections. Gujarat became the first state where the government in power was again chosen by the people and that too with clear majority. Even after 22 years people voted us into power again. This is our biggest achievement. We accept that our seat share was reduced but, nevertheless, we got clear majority. People chose us to form the government and this is the mandate and responsibility given to us by the people.
Also, our vote share increased from 47 to 49.4 percent. That means every second person in the state voted for us and this is when we have been in power for 22 years. This is no ordinary achievement.
But at some stage didn’t you feel that it was a neck and neck fight?
Indeed, this election was problematic for us. It was because in last two years the Congress was involved in aggressive caste politics with the Patidar andolan, OBC andolan… The Congress also communalised the elections. They vitiated the entire atmosphere.
Also, as the BJP is in power at the centre and the state, the natural choice for the Congress was an aggressive campaign against both governments. It was an interesting election, but still people voted for us.
During the election campaign, did you come across any simmering sense of dissatisfaction among people against, for example, administrative apathy?
See, the fact is that every second person voted for the BJP. No doubt that our seat share declined but, as I said earlier, our voting share increased. This happened because of the straight fight that took place this time.
Didn’t it help that in Gujarat it has always been a straight fight between the two big parties?
Yes, it has been, but last time , there was the Gujarat Parivartan Party formed by Keshubhai Patel. This time it was very different. Then, you see, we have a saying here in Gujarat that even in the dearest friend we start noticing flaws after a few years. This is quite human and natural. But still people choose to elect us back in power and that shows people’s immense trust in our leadership.
Still, did the results make you feel any need for introspection, especially ahead of the Lok Sabha elections?
The Lok Sabha 2019 election is altogether a different election. It is to elect the prime minister of the country. Lok Sabha elections are seen from a very different perspective. In the present circumstances, I think, Narendra Modi is the most dominant choice given the fact that he has the highest popularity, which comes from what he has done for the nation.
You are chief minister of the state which the prime minister ruled for more than a decade. He is a leader of high stature and comparisons are bound to take place. Does that bother you? How do you deal with it?
I used to say during the election campaign also that no two persons can be compared. Everyone has his own working style which can be different from others’. At the same time, I will add that Modi-ji cannot be compared with anyone else.
People often say that administration was very effective in his tenure. How do you deal with such comparisons?
Modi-ji kahan aur hum kahan! (Modi is a leader of altogether different class!) We all know and accept that Modi-ji has very strong leadership qualities and administrative abilities. We all accept he is way ahead in every respect. But we are making best efforts to match his pace.
You have a very big legacy to take along. What new initiatives are you taking to ensure that continuity?
When I first assumed office, I had only one year [before the state elections]. We were under election pressure from beginning. Now I have full five years. But let me tell you, at that time too, I had made it clear that I am here to play ‘Twenty20’ and our government will be defined by quick decision-making and speedy implementation of decisions. We will make sure that the vision Modiji had for Gujarat becomes a reality. Even after 22 years, people’s faith in us is intact and we will make all efforts to ensure that no dissatisfaction creeps in among people.
How do you plan to achieve this?
To begin with, on the administrative side, we will ensure even greater transparency, which is crucial for good governance. In the latest state budget, we have introduced several schemes for farmers, youth and senior citizens. We have focused efforts on how to minimise production cost for farmers. One step in this regard is granting loans to farmers at zero interest. We will come up with new MSP (minimum support price) mechanisms. Further, our focus is on modernisation of the farm sector and promotion of horticulture. We are focusing in great measure on diversification.
Youth employment is yet another area that we are putting a lot of focus upon. We have initiated a scheme under which fresh graduates will be hired by all industrial units and companies registered in Gujarat. Under this scheme, it will be mandatory for all the registered industries and companies to hire three percent of its workforce from this pool.
We will give these ‘apprentices’ Rs 3,000 per month as stipend and in addition they will also be getting salary from the company that will recruit them. This will help the youth to finance their own skill development. Then those who will work hard will get jobs according to their skills and competencies. We are also organising employment fairs and through this we plan to give jobs to 4 lakh youths. Gujarat has become a preferred destination for FDI (foreign direct investment). These investments in the form of FDI will also be used to generate employment for the youth. We are also making best efforts to connect youth with the Digital India programme. This year also we have planned to give 3 lakh tablet computers to the students enrolling in the first year of graduate courses.
For senior citizens we have come up with a scheme where all people above 60 years age and with maximum annual income of RS 6 lakh will get Rs 3 lakh for medical treatment if it involves surgery of any type. I think Gujarat is the first state to introduce such a scheme.
You have talked about modernisation of agriculture. Can you elaborate? Do you have any plans for corporatisation of agriculture?
At the outset, we have made it clear that the ownership of the land will remain with the farmer. We are motivating them to come together and do large-scale farming. We are stressing on contract farming and we are also focusing on value addition. More and more cold storages are being built and we are giving much importance to drip irrigation.
This has been talked about for long now, but given the condition of rivers – the Narmada, for example, is drying up – how successful this would be?
After many years we are witnessing shortage of water in the Narmada. This is essentially due to the scarcity of rain in Madhya Pradesh. Still, whatever water we had, we provided it for the irrigation; for both rabi and kharif crops. We have said no [irrigation facility] only for summer crops because there might be scarcity of drinking water for which we have kept reserves.
It is not impacting the farm sector much as only 7 percent farmers are engaged in summer farming. Also, in the Narmada accord, there is no provision for water for summer crops.
The 2004 general election was seen as mandate of ‘aggregate of states’. The next Lok Sabha elections are also likely to witness the same trend. The role of states will be important. What will be Gujarat’s contribution?
We will have a very positive contribution. You see, in the recent [assembly] elections too, we were leading in 18 out of 26 [Lok Sabha] constituencies. Also, the prime minister’s popularity is immense. Lot of work has been done in the last four years and we will make people aware of this.
Decisions like demonetisation, the tough stand against Pakistan and terrorism and the fact that under Modi-ji Delhi became scandal- and corruption-free will be acknowledged by people and all these factors will be taken into account in the 2019 elections.
You say this even after the Punjab National Bank scam?
Everyone knows that all the loans given to people like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi were given in the time of Congress rule. In the BJP rule they are running away.
Rural distress in Gujarat is one issue that is raised often. It was seen as the main challenge to your party in the last assembly elections. How do you see it now?
In the panchayat elections the BJP registered a decisive victory. In the assembly elections as we got a large number of votes in cities; so an impression was created that we did not win in rural areas, which is absolutely not the case. We won more seats in rural areas than in urban areas.
Do you agree that the caste factor has made a comeback in Gujarat politics in recent times?
This is true to a greater extent, as the Congress has indulged in aggressive caste politics in last two years, which affected the elections and general atmosphere. We are worried but we will not let this divisive politics succeed.
How do you plan to arrest this trend?
We will connect people with a sense of nationalism. In RSS we have this anthem which reads, “Bhool se bhi mukh main na jaati panth ki baat ho, bhasha prant ke liye kabhi na raktpaat ho” (Even by mistake there should be no talk of caste and creed. In the name of language and region there should never be bloodshed). This is our core philosophy and with this we will defeat every kind of divisive politics.
Don’t you think there is huge rise in political assertion by scheduled castes and tribes?
Certainly, it has and we cannot ignore it. But we will counter any type of divisive politics by making people aware of truth. I recently spoke in the assembly with full facts and figures about all we have done for scheduled castes and tribes.
Do you see the rise of Jignesh Mevani on the lines of Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh?
See, you need to understand the so-called rise of Jignesh Mevani in a context. The seat from which he won was Vadgam, which has always been a Congress stronghold. We never won from there. Mevani’s popularity would have faced a real test if he had contested from, say, a reserved seat in Ahmedabad. It is not that dalit, patidars and OBCs have not won from our party. Surat was the epicentre of these caste-based movements. But we won all the seats from there.
(The interview appears in March 31, 2018 edition)