In Gujarat, a moment of reckoning for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

One last chance.
One last chance.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave/Anindito Mukherjee
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Hours after securing a comfortable victory in the assembly elections in 2012, the then incumbent Gujarat chief minister addressed a huge gathering at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) state headquarters in Ahmedabad. Narendra Modi spoke in Hindi—not his native Gujarati—a sign that, having won the state battle three times on a trot, his eyes were set on a national role.

In less than two years, Modi stormed Delhi, riding on his stellar credentials as the third-term chief minister of Gujarat. Ever since, he’s met no match in national politics. Though of late Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the opposition Indian National Congress, has earned reluctant admirers, he’s still a long way off. 

Now, Gujarat is set to vote again in a two-phase election on Dec. 09 and Dec. 14, with the results for all the 182 seats to be declared on Dec. 18. But the going’s gotten tougher for Modi’s BJP, which has ruled the state for 22 straight years now. Gandhi, meanwhile, has managed to make his presence felt, though nobody’s counting on this necessarily translating into electoral gains.

The primary response of most political observers that Quartz spoke to was that “this time it is different.”

While they don’t think the BJP could lose power, there’s a telling reluctance in arriving at this conclusion. “Keep your fingers crossed,” Hari Desai, an Ahmedabad-based political analyst, said about what Dec. 18 has in store for his state.

What’s at stake?

Gujarat is India’s third-most industrialised and fourth-most urbanised state. It accounts for 7.6% of India’s GDP and has consistently grown at a faster rate than the country itself. But most importantly, it is Modi’s home state and its economic development has for long been his calling card.

So when India votes again in 2019, this Gujarat election is likely to have a direct bearing on it. If the BJP, which almost completely depends on Modi’s winnability, courses through comfortably in Gujarat, wrapping up the next general election is that much easier for the prime minister.

However, if it falters, 2019 could be a more open game.

Meanwhile, for the battered and bruised Congress, this could be the last chance at regaining some respectability. If it wins—a humongous “if,” that is—redemption could be instant (and recent polls do underscore this possibility). In fact, even if the party loses but considerably improves its tally from the last time (60 out of 182), it would be a shot in the arm.

The churning

For all the talk of the state’s economic performance, Gujarat’s been wracked by a series of violent agitations since June 2015. The reasons have ranged from economic to social, raising a critical question: Why is this happening despite the famed Gujarat model of development?

Take, for instance the uprising of the affluent and influential Patidar or Patel community, which forms up to 14% of the state’s population of over 60 million. A solid support base of the BJP’s for all these years, the Patels seem to have turned stridently against the party for mostly economic reasons.

Over the past two years, led by a 24-year-old Hardik Patel, who is not even old enough to contest national or state polls, members of this community have sought to call out the BJP government’s alleged poor performance. Their anger at being denied reservations in government jobs has often poured onto the streets, which in turn has evoked some strong-arm tactics from the administration, worsening the situation.

The BJP’s consternation was evident when it jailed Patel for sedition. His release nine months later in January this year was conditional upon him leaving Gujarat for six months. Recently, he was seen in a “sex CD” video that the young Patel alleged the BJP to have manufactured to malign him and his movement. All this has made him the poster boy of the community’s grievances, helping him draw huge crowds that sometimes even challenge Modi’s own rallies in size.

Another young leader who has taken on the BJP in Gujarat is Jignesh Mewani, member of one of the many Dalit communities that were deemed untouchable till the practice was banned in India. Dalits in the state have been up in arms ever since seven of their youths were ruthlessly beaten up by Hindu right-wing activists in full public glare in July 2016. The young men were accused of having killed cows, even though they were only skinning dead ones as part of their job. The incident, which took place in Una in Surendranagar district, sparked a nationwide furore and saw the state machinery swarming in to pacify the community.

“They only made promises…There has been no improvement in our condition. They said a case will be filed in 90 days, but nothing happened. Those people got bail,” Balubhai Sarvaiya, whose sons and nephews were among those flogged in Una, told Quartz.

The Dalit anger may not effectively translate into electoral trends considering that they form less than 8% of Gujarat’s population—and that, too, mostly scattered across the state. However, some of them may be looking to join hands with other agitated communities to make a mark.

“The government has found no answers to the quesitons raised by Hardik and other young leaders like him. Its only response has been to say that these protests are engineered by the Congress. However, if the Congress had the power to do it, it could have actually won elections,” said Desai, the analyst.

The moot question is: will all these uprisings make a dent in the BJP and Modi’s performance? Alternatively, will the Congress be able to ride this wave and make gains?

Will they make a difference?

The BJP is jittery. The 26-seat sweep it managed from Gujarat in the 2014 national elections seems like history. An August 2016 internal report of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, showed the party losing the state elections if held then. And nobody’s sure things have improved since.

Gujarat’s economic growth is no more an ace in its pack of cards. And the party has not harped on its economic credentials this time as much as one would have expected it to. Instead, it has mostly resorted to the staple rhetoric of nationalism, Gandhi-family baiting, and some crypto-religious shenanigans.

It did seek to overwhelm the Gujarati voter with a few mega projects, including the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train plan and the long-coming Sardar Sarovar Dam project. But that’s about it. And while party officials rattle out the government’s various other achievements, they are as enthusiastically countered by the opposition. So the same BJP spokespersons are quick to turn the focus on the opposition’s alleged missteps.

“What the Congress is doing today is what it did in 1984-85—cobble up grand alliances with various communities. The Patidars have been with us for decades because the Congress didn’t do anything for them,” said Gujarat BJP spokesperson Rajubhai Dhruv. “Will they ever make a Patel the chief minister of the state?”

Indeed, the Congress is yet to project a chief ministerial face. The party’s stand is that it will let the winning legislators choose. Such a tactic is not an abberation. Earlier this year, the BJP fought the key Uttar Pradesh legislative polls without naming its chief ministerial candidate, banking on Modi’s charisma alone.

The BJP, on its part, is sticking to its incumbent chief minister Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, but has not released an election manifesto. Their biggest trump card remains the Indian prime minister.

“Modi is today inaugurating projects that he first inaugurated in 2002, then in 2007, and yet again in 2012. People are asking why projects are not being completed? Even his showpiece monument, the big Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue (slated to be the world’s largest statue), is being built in China. So what happened to Make in India? This is a joke,” said Lalji Desai, general secretary of the Congress party in Gujarat. “No wonder there is anger in almost every section of the Gujarat society.”

The Congress is looking to tap into that anger and rake in at least 100 seats in the worst-case scenario, the Congressman said. Yet, how accurate this projection will be on voting day is anybody’s guess for now. “Up to 2012 or 2014, the BJP was setting the agenda and the Congress was responding. This time because Rahul Gandhi started off (his campaign) early, the BJP gave him a clear field,” said Yamal Vyas, an Ahmedabad-based chartered accountant and financial analyst. “But the Congress may have peaked too early.”

Modi, the BJP’s biggest draw, has been camping out in the state over the past many days as part of the party’s electoral blitz. That, the BJP would like to believe, will make all the difference.

“There are some communities and pockets where there is a murmur. But there’s no anti-incumbency wave as such. The BJP has its strongest grassroot workers’ network in Gujarat. The polling-day strategies it implemented in other states were perfected in Gujarat, which will help mobilise its committed voter base. The Congress lacks that,” said Shirish Kashikar, a political analyst and director of the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Mass Communication and Journalism.

“And when the Congress tries to corner Narendra Modi, this committed voter base closes ranks behind him. That’s his level of popularity here,” Kashikar added.

No wonder, this time Modi’s election punchline in Gujarati—not Hindi—is Modi che ne, which roughly translates to: “Don’t worry. Modi is around.”

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