Battleground Gujarat

The Moment of Reckoning

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Voters maintain an enigmatic silence as the political endgame gets closer in Modi’s citadel

WINDS SWEEP CHOTILA, a temple- town in Surendranagar district of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, which is otherwise too humid for comfort. The trek up the hill to the shrine erected for Chamunda Devi is fatiguing, but on the morning of September 27th, Rahul Gandhi covered these 1,000 steps at a breakneck pace, taking only 15 minutes. Children run around and shopkeepers are busy selling wares—from Bollywood movie CDs to trinkets embossed with images of the goddess, a favourite of the numerically preponderant community of Kolis who live in this area known for its ceramic products.

Standing below a huge poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Madhav Koli, who is from a “nearby village”, says he makes it a point these days to bring his wife and two teenage boys here every Sunday to offer prayers to the Devi. He also finds nothing unusual about the Congress leader visiting the temple. He has read in the newspapers that he had visited other temples as well, among them the Khodal Dham temple in Rajkot’s Kagvad village, which is considered holy by the rich Leva Patels; Dasi Jeevan Mandir, an important centre of worship for Dalits and Buddhists; Jalaram temple; and the Somnath Temple, one of the twelve jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva. “I don’t find anything odd about such visits. All politicians should visit temples and do good things for India,” says this 40-year-old, adding he is not happy about the “financial situation” in the family. “I would need to earn more to give my children better education when they reach college-going age. We visit the temple also because going elsewhere would be more expensive, and I can’t afford that,” he states, though he refuses to divulge which party he will vote for in Gujarat’s Assembly elections due on December 9th and 14th. “It is a personal decision, after all,” he says, and walks away grinning.

SURESHBHAI, A MECHANICAL shop owner in Limdi, an hour’s drive from Chotila, pokes fun at Rahul’s temple- hopping ways, calling it ‘naatak’, an eyewash. He admits he doesn’t make a paisa more than he earned two years ago, but then “drastic steps” are required to check ill-gotten money in the system and non-payment of taxes. “The BJP may not be the best, but who else should I vote for?” he asks. He says he is a Kshatriya, a Darbar by caste, and he owes his allegiance to Prime Minister Modi, not any party. “He is on the right track,” he says, and asks around who is the BJP candidate for the Limdi seat, which was wrested by the BJP from the Congress in a 2013 bypoll. Nobody answers his question. As we drive off, a group of young adults sitting around silently while Sureshbhai spoke suddenly get up and shout, “Modi Modi Modi”. The chant soon fades away.

Like many states, in Gujarat, too, local pride runs deep. So do provincial affinities in politics. That perhaps explains why Congress spinmeisters thought it wise that Rahul Gandhi visit the state’s famous temples; skip the thorny subject of the 2002 Gujarat riots; speak of the sacrifices of the likes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Mahatma and not of his own family; and eschew anything that would go against the typical Gujarati mindset. Author and IIT-Gandhinagar Professor Rita Kothari explains the logic from her perspective as a long-time ‘inhabitant’ of the state and whose parents had settled there after leaving Sindh during Partition: “[Congress leaders] are not talking of Muslims. Because that vocabulary had made them appear anti-Gujarat. It sort of reinforced a view that they have always been against us [Gujaratis]. This time, the Congress didn’t want to [make that error].” A close aide of Rahul Gandhi also admits that the party has taken special care not to hurt the Gujarati asmita (pride).

For the BJP, the biggest asset is Modi himself, who appears to have transcended the limitations of his party; to take him on in his home turf has been seen as an impossible task. Concedes a Congress person close to Rahul: “It is their citadel, but we hope to make good gains in the Saurashtra region of the state and in North Gujarat, besides other pockets.” It is here that Milan Vaishnav finds a rationale in the Congress’ change of tack to not bring up the Gujarat carnage of 2002. This noted author and director and a senior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has long studied the electoral behaviour of Indian voters suggests there is an internal debate within the Congress over how much emphasis should be placed on 2002. “The verdict seems to be that if mobilising [opinion] on the Gujarat riots has not worked for the past 15 years, it is unlikely to work today— as for many Gujaratis, the riots are a distant memory.”

“While I sympathise with the Patel community, I have no doubt OBCs and lower castes will protest any casteist axis Congress tries to build” - Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas

For his part, Modi has consistently followed what political scientists and politicians such as Yogendra Yadav and others brand as a ‘negative campaign’. The BJP, having ruled the state for over two decades, has been blamed for the rural distress here. The BJP had attacked Rahul Gandhi for colluding with ‘casteist forces’ to ensure electoral gains. Dharmendra Pradhan, a Union minister who has worked closely with party president Amit Shah in various elections in the past, tells Open in Ahmedabad that a counter- polarisation of casteists to these “reactionary tactics” is sure to happen. While he says he sympathises with the concerns of the Patel community, who have been a traditional vote bank of the BJP in the state and had helped the Hindu nationalist party break Congress dominance a couple of decades ago, he has no doubt whatsoever that OBCs and lower castes will be up in arms against any casteist axis that the Congress tries to build. Like Amit Shah, who is micromanaging the polls in the state, Pradhan also hopes that voters will reject the Congress for “apeing” the BJP in its campaign. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had earlier questioned the rival party’s soft- Hindutva posture, asking why there was any need of a copycat version while there was the original available to the electorate.

Local BJP leaders expect this kind of counter-polarisation in Radhanpur, where 40-year-old Alpesh Thakor, an OBC leader and a new entrant to the Congress, is contesting from.

I meet BJP’s Lavingji Thakor, a former Congress leader who had once vacated this same seat for Shankersinh Vaghela when the latter went on to become Chief Minister in the late 1990s. Mustachioed and friendly, his popularity is not a patch on that of Alpesh, who made a name for himself in his community with an anti- alcoholism crusade. Though the BJP has not lost the Radhanpur seat since 1998, in the last Assembly poll, the BJP’s Nagarji Thakor defeated the Congress candidate Bhavsinhji Thakor by a margin of only 3,834 votes. Local leaders say the 60,000-plus strong Thakor votes will be split this time, thanks to a contest between two politicians of the same community. Besides, of the nearly 258,000 voters in all, other OBCs and lower castes of the Chaudhary, Rajput, Rabari and Prajapati communities, among others, make up two-thirds of the electorate in this constituency, one of the four seats in Patan district. The Congress hopes that BJP’s Lavingji Thakor, who has a penchant for laughing loudly at his own jokes, will be no match for Alpesh. Lavingji himself says, “The fathers [among Thakors] are with me and the sons are with [Alpesh].” That the constituency has relatively few Patel votes could be a disadvantage for Alpesh, who is seen as an upstart even by many local Congress leaders.

SPEAKING ABOUT THE latest survey on voting trends in Gujarat conducted by CSDS-Lok Niti, Yogendra Yadav tells Open that most analysts mistake the impact of the Patidar agitation in terms of Patel disgruntlement alone. Reviewing the results of the survey, the final tracker poll by the CSDS-Lok Niti team, Yadav argues that a counter polarisation among other OBCs against Patidars is unlikely because the “agitation has more to do with rural and farmer unrest than about any caste or about reservation”. In his analysis, “It marks a large-scale protest against unemployment and hardship among various groups in the state.” According to him, the positive impact of a section of Patidars (75 per cent of whom were pro-BJP in the last election, a figure that has now fallen to 45 per cent) shifting their loyalty to the Congress is that Dalits and Muslims will be able to vote for the challenger party. “Which means Patidars would offer such pro-Congress voters an umbrella—or a sense of security—for voting in this election.” There is a perception that some vulnerable groups in the state have typically stayed away from ballot booths, a claim hotly contested by the BJP. An earlier CSDS-Lok Niti survey found in August that the BJP had an over 30-percentage-point lead over the Congress in the state. By October, the gap fell to a six percentage points, with the Congress having campaigned tirelessly against the Gujarat development model, aided by the slogan ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe’ (development has gone crazy).

“Our work is based on the data we get. This time round we have picked up clear indications of a Congress revival in the state” - Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

Yadav, however, isn’t an admirer of the recent Hindutvaesque stance of the Congress. He says that with the sole exception of Sonia Gandhi’s comment in an earlier poll in which she referred to Modi without naming him, as ‘maut ka saudagar’, the Congress has always failed to raise the issue of the 2002 violence to any effect in Gujarat. He feels it is because the nature of the Congress worker in the state is not significantly different from that of a BJP worker. “So having failed to highlight the failings and agenda of the BJP government for 15 years, the Congress was left with a short-term agenda of playing the soft Hindutva card.” Modi was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014 until he became Prime Minister.

While some BJP functionaries have dismissed the CSDS-Lok Niti survey as bogus, R Jagannathan, editorial director of Swarajya, a monthly publication, argues the BJP should be worried about its poll prospects: “The Congress is far ahead in the state’s 98 rural constituencies, and it is only in the 84 urban seats that the BJP has some chance of holding on to its seats. But it can’t count on this, for there is a subterranean feel that the voter wants to give the BJP a rap on the knuckles this time, both for taking him for granted and for the pain inflicted on small businesses. It may be comeuppance time.”

Amit Shah, the architect of several glorious poll triumphs of the BJP, however, has stuck to his prediction that the BJP will win close to 150 seats in the 182-member state Assembly.

Speaking on the phone from Surat, after witnessing a massive rally on December 3rd addressed by 24-year-old Hardik Patel (who is originally from Viramgam in Surendranagar district), a city- based manager in a diamond manufacturing firm tells Open that he senses “something is changing in Gujarat”. He says, “A set of factors, including rising unemployment, farmer woes and a raft of other factors, including the trampling of agitations and anti- Dalit atrocities, etcetera, are coming to the fore as election issues”.

Like Hardik Patel, who evokes admiration and commands a large following in places like Mehsana and nearby districts, especially among members of his community and also among a few other OBCs and farmers, Jignesh Mevani, too, has emerged as a prominent leader, particularly among Dalits, following the 2016 Una agitation in the wake of a video clip that surfaced of several Dalits being thrashed mercilessly for skinning a dead cow.

Dalits protested by not removing carcasses lying on the streets and came up with slogans such as ‘Gai ki Poonchch Tum Rakho, Humein Hamari Zameen Doh’ (Keep the cow’s tail, give us our land), which caught popular imagination. Mevani is contesting polls as an independent from the Vadgam reserved seat in the Banaskantha district of northern Gujarat. While Dalits form just over 7 per cent of the state’s population, Patidars make up close to 14 per cent, and Thakors are estimated to be around 22 per cent. Tribals form close to 15 per cent of Gujarat, and Muslims 9-10 per cent. Patidars were at the forefront of the mid-1980s agitation that finally broke the back of the Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim (KHAM) formula championed by the Congress during the 1980s, the last time it had dominance in the state.

“The typical Gujarati is inclined towards entrepreneurship, not a salaried job. The angst is that this government is not bothered about small businesses” - Rita Kothari, professor, IIT Gandhinagar

The Congress is hoping to revive its lost glory in Gujarat by appealing to Dalits and a section of the OBCs farmers, small and medium businessmen, Patidars and so on. At a smaller level, health workers and textile and diamond traders had organised protest marches in the state following demonetisation last November. These are people who feel largely left out by the Gujarat model of development. While economists of the stature of Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya had called this model a metaphor for growth-oriented economic policies, as opposed to the redistribution-oriented Kerala model, the Gujarat experience has veered more towards capital-intensive industries and less towards those that employ labour in large numbers. As a result, creation of jobs has become slower than expected. This model, its critics say, favours the well-off sections of society and big business rather than strugglers and small-and-medium enterprises.

A section of academics and political scientists are still unsure of how such discontent will translate into votes for the Congress. Professor Kothari says jobs are not a major concern in Gujarat. She hastens to add she is not undermining the fact that unemployment is for real, but the typical Gujarati is inclined towards entrepreneurship, not a salaried job. The angst at the moment among a large section is that this government is not bothered about small businesses. “Basically, all that [talk] about development strikes a hollow note now even to the ardent BJP supporter,” she says.

Does that mean there is cynicism about Modi himself? “I don’t think so,” she states.

Varnasi Singh, who works as a postman but has built a two-storey home, discloses that he is Darbar Kshatriya who commands a lot of respect in his neighbourhood in Kadu Village, located in Lakhtar Taluka of Surendranagar district. He invites me to his home and serves tea. He says change has to be a constant. And repeats the statement a number of times, until I interject and ask him to elaborate. He smiles and reiterates, “Parivartan hona chaahiye (change should happen)”. One gets the impression he will keep saying it for hours, until he is asked another question. Then he opens up to say, “I had stopped voting. This time I will, and there are a lot of injustices that happen here, including illegal activities. Therefore I must tell you that we are slightly disappointed with the government.” He does not elaborate. Before I leave, he says, “You shouldn’t forget that we are Padmavati’s people, the Kshatriyas. We have many things to be angry about.” His cryptic remarks are in keeping with the unspoken motto of the average Gujarati voter this year: ‘Voice not whom you will vote for’.

In Rajkot, Raghubhai, who doesn’t wish to disclose his surname, believes that GST—which Rahul Gandhi has scoffed at as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’, though it was his party that initiated this reform—and demonetisation are no longer burning issues for people. The businessman concedes that there is a perception that BJP’s Chief Minister Vijay Rupani is a mere rubber stamp. “But so what? After all, it is the party that will handle its government,” he justifies, “Besides, Modiji will always pay close attention to issues in his home state.” Other chats with voters from the Kutch region of the state reveal similar sentiments.

Sanjay Kumar, who is among the three people who oversaw the CSDS-Lok Niti survey, disapproves of such empty rhetoric. He also admits that his team made a major mistake in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. “We might make a mistake again, but we do our work based on the data we get. Why is it that nobody is talking about our past work?” This time round, he adds, his team has picked up clear indications of a Congress revival in the state.

Meanwhile, there are others who feel the Congress is making a wilful error by opting for a campaign with Hindu overtones. Says London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose, a keen observer of the political strategies of India’s Grand Old Party: “My view is that the Congress’ soft-Hindutva campaign is both morally misguided and strategically misjudged. But it is an error that party has made before, in times when it was not yet facing the existential crisis it is now. Rajiv Gandhi’s allowing the Rama Mandir shilanyas in Ayodhya in 1989 and then calling for the establishment of Rama Rajya in India at an election rally there in 1989, Sonia Gandhi terming Hinduism the guarantee of secularism in India in 1999, etcetera.” Referring to the recent rise in Rahul’s popularity on social media platforms, Bose says he believes such an effect can be created, or improved upon, by engaging suitably qualified professionals in that field. “But that’s not a substitute for real achievements and—most critically in this case—genuine leadership capacity.”

Modi, whose social-media presence is in sync with his electoral gains, has hit the ground running and launched into massive tirades against the Congress for its deeply entrenched dynastic culture. He has also targeted the rival party for its alleged denigration of Gujarati leaders, including Sardar Patel, in the past. The chief BJP campaigner has also alleged the Congress is trying to stall the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya, though the rival party’s stance on the matter is rather more complex. But then, Modi knows that his local-leader credentials and Hindu alpha male persona are irresistible to Gujarati voters.