Cover Story

Close call

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Finance Minister Arun Jaitely, BJP president Amit Shah, Home Minitser Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the party headquarters in New Delhi on December 18. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

Congress president Rahul Gandhi arrives at Parliament House to attend the winter session of Parliament as results of the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat start coming in. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

BJP workers celebrate the party's victory at “Kamalam”, the party office in Gandhinagar on December 18. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Congress supporters celebrate the victory their candidate in Ahmedabad on December 18. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Ahmed Patel, Congress leader. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The BJP survives an electoral scare in Gujarat by resorting to its time-tested politics of communal polarisation, but the verdict destroys the Modi-Amit Shah combine’s aura of invincibility.

THE message between the lines in the results of the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh was writ large on the office of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi, the national capital, in the early hours of counting on December 18. In stark contrast to the normal atmosphere that has prevailed in the central office over the past two decades on the day of counting in any election in Gujarat, there was no festive mood that morning. All the ingredients of the festivity that used to be on display on such days, such as animated slogan-shouting, incessant bursting of fire crackers and periodic distribution of sweets, were conspicuous by their absence. The mood was pregnant with disquiet and a sense of apprehension.

The early trends, wherein both the Congress and the BJP were alternately taking the lead, added to this mood. Even when it became clear, around noon, that the BJP would retain Gujarat for the sixth term and capture Himachal Pradesh from the Congress, party workers gathered at the headquarters had to be goaded into celebratory demonstrations.

The reasons for this uncharacteristic diffidence was not far to seek. As some of the workers revealed to Frontline, the triumph in both the States was not up to the expectations generated in them by the projections of senior leaders, including party president Amit Shah, both during the campaign and even after polling was over. Amit Shah had proclaimed that 150-plus seats were a reasonable target for Gujarat and for Himachal Pradesh it was 50-plus.

“We had expected at least 120 seats in Gujarat and a minimum of 50 in Himachal Pradesh. But the Congress has performed much better in comparison to these expectations. Of course, a victory is a victory, but we are not able to gear ourselves into a high celebratory mood,” a party worker who had come from Noida in Uttar Pradesh told Frontline.

Some senior leaders, such as Seshadri Chari, expressed a similar sentiment while participating in television debates and admitted that the Congress had come up with a reasonably good show, particularly in Gujarat where it pushed down the BJP’s seat share significantly as compared with the last Assembly elections, held in 2012.

Pep talk

By early evening, however, Amit Shah himself reached the BJP headquarters and made an earnest attempt to blow away the diffidence. Addressing a media conference at the party office in the presence of party workers, which was telecast live, he said that the results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections had shown that the people had voted for “politics of performance and development over dynasty and polarisation”. He added that the BJP was not able to win the projected 150 seats in Gujarat because the Congress played “caste-based divisive politics” and “pulled down the standard of political discourse”.

Joining Amit Shah later that evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sought to push this qualitative analysis of the Gujarat elections, stating that the BJP had striven, since 1995, to take the politics of the State beyond caste divisions and that the Congress had unsuccessfully tried to bring them back into vogue in the current elections. Amit Shah, on his part, asserted that the BJP’s vote share in both States had increased and that the party was “confident that when we go into 2019 elections under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, we will once again get people’s support”. Modiji has great visionary plans for the youth and in 2022 all that will become a reality, was his refrain.

Notwithstanding this pep talk, there were still some BJP workers at the party headquarters who wondered whether the party had been able to prove decisively the claims made by Amit Shah in relation to the election results. Their primary doubt was whether the party had really advanced, even in terms of vote share, in comparison with the percentage of votes it had garnered in the last elections in both the States, namely the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the 2014 elections, the BJP’s vote share in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh was 60.11 per cent and 53.3 per cent respectively. Three years later, it had become approximately 49 per cent in both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In comparison, the Congress’ vote share in Gujarat had increased from 33.45 per cent to 42 per cent. In Himachal Pradesh, it had risen from 40.7 per cent to 42 per cent. “This trend is not at all heartening,” said some of the BJP workers from Noida.

The analysis presented by Amit Shah and Modi about the Gujarat results was being questioned also at the highest level of the party. Talking to Frontline, a veteran leader and former Cabinet Minister, who has been consistently sidelined by Modi and Amit Shah, was of the view that while the statement about “politics of performance and development winning over dynasty and polarisation” was great in terms of political rhetoric, it did not actually represent the victories in both the States. “Himachal Pradesh has an electoral tradition of alternating between the BJP and the Congress. So, that was a given. But if we had not been able to bring in the Hindutva element forcefully at different stages of the campaign, including by highlighting the ‘non-Hindu’ entry of Rahul Gandhi into Somnath temple and Pakistan’s desire to make a Muslim Congress leader, Ahmed Patel, Chief Minister of Gujarat, this election in that State would have been as good as lost. Let us accept that. These campaign masterstrokes are what won us these elections in Gujarat, even though by a small margin.”

New caste orientation

There were several signals that emerged during the campaign in Gujarat that corroborated this point of view. To start with, the BJP leadership had been forced not to highlight the so-called Gujarat model of development, since it had got exposed as a mechanism essentially benefitting a clutch of crony capitalists, through a number of reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and through agitations by Dalits, Patels, farmers and fishermen. The new caste orientation that had developed at the grass roots as a consequence of these struggles under the leadership of young leaders such as Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani had added to this, along with the socio-economic climate created by the economic woes inflicted on the trading and farming communities by the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime and the persistent ripple effects of demonetisation. Blatant communal polarisation was the only counter visualised by the Modi-Amit Shah duo in this context. The BJP veteran also pointed out that the supplementary campaign built on some controversial statements of Congress leaders such as Mani Shankar Aiyar and Kapil Sibal contributed to the advancement of this Hindutva plank.

His reference, obviously, was to Aiyar’s comment on Modi being a “neech kisam ke insaan” (a low level human being ) and Sibal’s appeal in the Supreme Court seeking postponement of the hearing of the Ayodhya Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi case to a period after the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Aiyar’s comment was castigated by BJP leaders, including Modi, as one that pointed to the lower caste origins of the Prime Minister and Sibal’s appeal at the apex court was portrayed as an attempt to play electoral politics with an issue as crucial as the Ayodhya Ram Mandir, considered central to the Hindu sentiment. The Pakistan angle was propagated even more aggressively when Modi accused Aiyar and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of conspiring with Pakistan to finish him politically and physically. Modi even said that “these conspirators” have issued a “supari” (contract to liquidate) against him. Undoubtedly, all this added to the communal, sectarian and emotional quotient of the Gujarat election campaign.

Communal polarisation

Mathew Vilayasseril, a pollster with over a decade of experience, pointed out that but for this high-voltage, communally polarising campaign led by Modi himself, the BJP could have lost the elections in Gujarat. Corroborating this opinion, Prithvi Singh, a politically active farmer leader from the Kutch region of Gujarat, pointed out that this communal campaign was tried out in bits and pieces initially, including through Chief Minister Vijay Rupani’s allegations against Ahmed Patel in the name of jehadi terrorist links. “This was done by seeking to link two alleged Islamic State operatives from Surat to the senior Congress leader since one of them was working with Ankleshwar’s Sardar Patel Hospital in Bharuch, of which Ahmed Patel was a trustee once upon a time. This did not stick as Ahmed Patel proved by producing an affidavit that he had resigned his trusteeship of the hospital way back in 2014. Patel saab was, incidentally, not very active in this election campaign, but still Modi used his name to drive a communal campaign by invoking some Pakistani who had wished that Patel become the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Ultimately, all this worked, although not at the scale that the BJP wanted. Still, that was good enough to get the party a majority,” Prithvi Singh told Frontline.

Notwithstanding the obviously contentious and communally polarising methods employed to win the Gujarat elections, there is a general acceptance within the hierarchy of the BJP leadership that the victory would help Modi and Amit Shah to re-assert their dominance within the party. The veteran leader, who questioned the qualitative analysis of the verdict by Modi and Amit Shah, told Frontline that if the duo had ultimately lost the elections in Gujarat, many leaders, including veterans such as former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, would have made bold to raise the banner of revolt. “Now, the sense within the leadership hierarchy as well as large sections of the rank and file is that it is Modi and his actively polarising campaign that has helped the BJP retain a crucial State such as Gujarat, which the party as well as the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar has showcased as a Hindutva laboratory.

“Clearly, there can be no questioning of his leadership or that of his associates like Amit Shah within the party till 2019,” said the senior BJP leader.

However, he pointed out that the Gujarat-Himachal Pradesh results, particularly the former, has opened up national politics as never before in the past three and a half years. “Now, this has shown the opposition parties that there is a window of opportunity to counter Modi and Amit Shah provided they work consistently and hard enough just as Congress president Rahul Gandhi did during the Gujarat campaign.” The leader said that Rahul Gandhi’s 17-day campaign in Gujarat traversing the length and breadth of the State, was indeed impressive and that its single most important deficiency was that it was top down.

“This top down nature thoroughly exposed the organisational weakness of the party in Gujarat. As a matter of fact, it is a common weakness of the Congress in many other States, that it does not have an organisational machinery at the ground level capable of converting public sentiment into votes. The BJP, being a cadre party, that is well complimented by the RSS, does not have this deficiency. It is in this context that the gains made by the Congress in this election have tremendous value for Indian democracy.”

This comment is indeed significant, coming as it does from a BJP veteran, himself a champion of many Hindutva battles. In a sense, it points towards a kind of churning within the BJP. Talking in a similar vein, Subhash Deswal, political observer who was a colonel in the Indian Army and is currently a progressive farmer in western Uttar Pradesh, said that the ultimate lesson from the Gujarat results was that the opposition parties could fight the dominant BJP under Modi and seek to uphold the real spirit of Indian democracy if they can conscientiously build up their unity, cutting across ideological and political differences and also avoid falling into the trap of communally polarising discourse that the Sangh Parivar would advance from time to time. “Indeed, it is a trying task but one that has great merit for the future of Indian democracy and polity,” Deswal said.

This point of view, too, has tremendous significance since it is evident that in future electoral battles too the principal thrust of the Sangh Parivar and the Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP would be to take recourse to Hindutva polarisation especially because Modi’s tenure so far has produced no tangible socio-economic gains for the people at large. By all indications this communal project could well get unravelled at a perennially sensitive spot like Ayodhya, in the form of attempts to build a Ram mandir. Such an exercise could also lead to the clubbing of Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, due in the latter months of 2018, with the general elections due in May 2019.

At another, larger level, the Gujarat verdict and the relative gains made by the Congress also underscore the persistence of identity-related politics as a central theme of Indian political-sociological discourse. The Congress and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, had sought, in this election, to forge a social coalition of Patels, Other Backward Classes (OBC) Kolis, Dalits and Muslims against the pan-Hindu polarising identity perpetrated by the Sangh Parivar. It succeeded to some extent but not to the level of removing the BJP from power.

More importantly, there are inherent social conflicts within the groups brought together by the Congress in this election. Perhaps, the first real test for the leadership of Rahul Gandhi as the newly elevated Congress president would be in how well he addresses issues relating to this social conflict as and when they manifest themselves and also how well he correlates and coordinates this with the larger concerns of Indian democracy and its struggle against fascist tendencies.

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