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Gujarat polls: It’s all about Modi, no one else

Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.
Published : Nov 20, 2017, 12:13 am IST
Updated : Nov 20, 2017, 12:15 am IST

The BJP dare not wheel it out in this election season, fearing undesirable repercussions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

The Gujarat model of development was the flavour of the poll season in 2014 when then chief minister Narendra Modi rode to power in New Delhi. It was with a magician’s enthusiasm for the tricks up his sleeve that Mr Modi had rolled out the “Gujarat model” in election meetings around the country, even if it wasn’t explained what it meant.

But in the current campaign for the Assembly polls in Gujarat, this “model” appears to be a noteworthy absence, though it was once presumed to be synonymous with “spectacular”, and had apparently brought the people of Gujarat untold happiness.

The BJP dare not wheel it out in this election season, fearing undesirable repercussions. Everyone has now understood that no such “model” existed at all, and that Mr Modi had only produced a conjurer’s trick. So widely ridiculed is the idea today that even the Opposition Congress doesn’t think it worthwhile to make pointed references to it.

The Ro-Ro ferry service that the PM inaugurated in his home state in the midst of the current poll campaign was a reminder, if one was needed, of the extraordinary slowness of Mr Modi’s development efforts in his home state -- the so-called “Gujarat model” -- which in some sectors appears to be even more anaemic than the Bihar model that usually brings forth a good-natured laugh. The service had been conceived years ago when Mr Modi was CM and was late by a decade coming.

The plight of the traditionally landowning and prosperous Patels or Patidars, now fighting for quotas in education and jobs, is yet another reminder that the “Gujarat model” had no basis in fact and was no more than a craftily contrived hoax to dupe voters in Mr. Modi’s bid for power in Delhi.

How the Gujarat electorate outside of the nicely comfortable urban middleclass milieu responds in this election to the dubious claims of development in two decades of BJP rule, much of the time under Mr Modi, the BJP’s high-pitched salesman, will be interesting to watch. It is the Modi charisma that’s on trial -- no two ways about it.

It is noteworthy that BJP top gun Amit Shah appears a sobered man these days and has lately refrained from repeating the slogan of “150 plus” for his party in an Assembly of 182. He has clearly absorbed the lessons of his disastrous attempts at holding campaign meetings a few weeks ago when he was heckled by fellow Gujaratis. The extreme curiosity that his son’s business dealings have aroused shrinks his elbow-room further.

In contrast, PM Modi, who is giving the campaign everything he has got, still draws crowds. He is, in fact, said to be the linchpin of the BJP in the state, not just the face of its election effort. Local observers report inner turmoil in the Gujarat BJP. This is among the reasons why the PM is lining up Cabinet ministers, including a former television actress, to dazzle the voter with.  

Nevertheless, the question asked is: ‘Take Mr Modi out of the equation, and where is the BJP?” The much-vaunted RSS organisation is not to be scoffed at, and yet uncertainty gnaws at the saffron party, although the campaign on the other side is being run by Rahul Gandhi, who was being treated as a walkover till the other day. Evidently, it is not just a reinvigorated Mr Gandhi that the ruling party is up against, but an electorate that the Congress leader finds responsive and Mr Shah doesn’t. It is hard to tell where all this will lead. But one thing is evident. The ruling party’s campaign is not about the so-called achievements of its 22-year-old rule, or even the failures of the Congress elsewhere -- except in sweeping terms, such as attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru and the hardy perennial “dynasty” barb.

The saffron party’s campaign is about Mr Gandhi the individual, with a denigration of him as being insufficiently knowledgeable about Hindu religious customs and traditions. This is the ultra-nationalistic discourse all over again, behind which lurks communal politics. Since the chief Congress campaigner cannot any more be made fun of as one lacking in grey matter, the question that top BJP leaders -- including Union Cabinet ministers and the saffron-robed UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath -- like to ask these days is why the Congress vice-president is visiting temples, and whether he even knows how to pray, Hindu-style, a roundabout way of pressing the familiar Hindu nationalism agenda.

Since the RSS-BJP came to power at the Centre three years ago riding the buggy of Hindu communalism, and using religious imagery to propel itself and denounce its opponents as being not just anti-Hindu but also anti-religion, anti-national and anti-India, the Congress’ Gujarat campaign seems to have readjusted its tactics so as not to permit the BJP a monopoly over “Hindu tradition”, and thus give it yet another chance to tar opponents as being “anti-religion” and take the discussion away from everyday existence concerns, especially of the unprivileged, on which the BJP’s record in government is substandard.

Therefore, Mr Gandhi’s temple visits in Gujarat are causing the saffron leadership considerable unease. The BJP-RSS have no answer to his query: “Can’t I visit a temple?”

The ruling party is finding it’s trump card is being degraded, and has floated a clever sub-rosa campaign -- that Mr Gandhi is running on a “soft-communal” platform. Hard secularists used to say these sorts of things once, but now the BJP is getting into the act. There is some historical irony here. Not all those who go to a temple or a mosque are communal. Indians understand this better than most as most Indians are religious but not communal. Therefore, a visit to a religious place by a political leader tends to be measured in the right register by voters, but mischievously by its opponents. The logic and rule of politics is clear: A show of religious symbolism slips into communal conduct only when it is a part of a strategy of mobilising a particular religious community for political or ideological ends and, typically, in opposition to other religious denominations; not otherwise. But even if temples are being visited, it’s not the Lord of Dwarkapeeth who will decide the election, it is the ordinary voter.

Tags: narendra modi, gujarat assembly elections, amit shah