Narendra Modi once again brings victory to the Bharatiya Janata Party, but he is no longer a cult figure in rural Gujarat.
IS the Bharatiya Janata Partys (BJP) victory in the December Assembly elections in Gujarat really the landslide that it is being made out to be? Maybe not, despite the party winning 117 seats in the 182-member Assembly. It rode on the shoulders of Chief Minister Narendra Modi; the efforts of the other leaders, be it senior leader L.K. Advani or BJP president Rajnath Singh, did not seem to matter.
Indeed, these Assembly elections were more about Modi than anything else. Symbolising his iconic status was the Modi mask, grinning from thousands of faces of BJP supporters at campaign rallies. If it gave him a larger-than-life image, the mainstream media fell for the hype. This election is only about Moditva was their refrain.
Modi is undoubtedly the most charismatic political leader in Gujarat today and he projects himself as a selfless and strong leader ready to take on any threat to Gujarat and whose only mission is Gujarats development. His squeaky-clean image is never in doubt among his supporters, though his government is known to bend over backwards to please corporates.
Another aspect of the man is his crowd-management skills. He is unmatched when it comes to firing up a crowd by playing on Gujarati pride and a persecution complex. While his speech on the encounter death of Sohrabuddin could provoke the crowd to chant kill him, kill him, he is adept at turning every accusation against him into an insult against five crore Gujaratis.
If this aspect of the landslide may be causing the BJP leadership concern, a sobering fact for it is that this cult of personality is largely confined to the cities and towns, and among non-resident Indians (NRIs) and business houses. In rural Gujarat, Modi is just another Chief Minister who promised the earth but did not deliver. A pointer to the anti-incumbency factor, say Modis critics, is the fact that the BJP lost 39 seats that it held, while winning only 29 new ones.
A major reason for Modis victory, it is widely agreed, is the political vacuum in the State. There is simply no effective opposition. The Congress in Gujarat is weak and lacking in direction, and it did not project any leader as a chief ministerial candidate. This, and the fact that the Congress did not have anyone strong enough to counter Modi, saw the media and Modi turning the election campaign into a Sonia Gandhi vs Modi battle.
The Congress thought it had a trump card BJP rebels. Former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, former Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia and 11 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) left the BJP, complaining against Modis authoritarian ways. Seven of these MLAs and five other rebels contested the elections on the Congress ticket. They were expected to help the Congress in the Saurashtra region, where Keshubhai was said to have the support of the Leuva Patel community. Moreover, the majority of the 500-plus suicides by farmers in Gujarat occurred in Saurashtra. But the BJP stunned the Congress by winning 43 of the 58 seats in Kutch-Saurashtra (see table). Only one of the seven BJP rebels was voted back.
The fact that the Sangh Parivar cadre felt marginalised by Modi and did not campaign for him was supposed to help the Congress, but it did not. BJP workers and supporters seemed to have remained with the party, not the rebels. In Gujarat, people have an allergy to the Congress pseudo secularism, so they will not switch loyalty to the rebels. They will remain with us, a BJP spokesperson told Frontline before the results were announced.
The rebels were the last threat to Modis authority. With their defeat, Modi has emerged as an undisputed political force. In north Gujarat, where Modis hometown Vadnagar is located, the BJP won 25 of the 33 seats, compared with 18 in 2002. The BJP dominated in south Gujarat, too, winning 18 of the 29 seats, three more than in 2002.
The Congress, however, regained its stronghold in central Gujarat, where it had lost ground owing to the communal wave that swept the riot-affected areas after the state-supported communal carnage of 2002. Of the 43 seats in the region, it won 22 this time as against five in 2002. In Ahmedabad, the BJPs bastion in central Gujarat, the Congress gained two additional seats. We won here because these two constituencies had strong Dalit and Muslim populations, said Congress spokesperson Hasmukh Patel.
Of the total population in the State, 15 per cent is Adivasi and 40 per cent is constituted by Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Modi belongs to the Ghanchis OBC community, traditionally oil millers. While the BJP won in the tribal areas of south Gujarat, the Congress regained its hold in central Gujarats Adivasi belt. The Congress took a big chunk of the reserved Scheduled Tribe seats 14 of 26. The BJP clinched 12 of 13 reserved Scheduled Caste seats and also retained a large section of the OBC vote.
Muslims were caught in a bind. They remained with the Congress, even though the party has not done much to get justice for the victims of the 2002 carnage. In fact, the party tried to distance itself from Muslims fearing that it would be seen as anti-Hindu. The Congress also kept silent on the expose by Tehelka, telecast before the first phase of the two-phase elections, in which several leaders from the Sangh Parivar were shown on tape as admitting that the gory violence had been planned and had the blessings of the Chief Minister. Apparently, the Congress was scared that any reference to the communal carnage would benefit Modi.
A regionwise analysis shows that the results of 2007 are not substantially different from those of 1995, 1998 and 2002. The BJPs vote percentage and number of seats have remained steady.
The BJP managed to retain its support base despite having few achievements to show. The lack of a creative opposition helped Modi overcome anti-incumbency by employing skilful tactics such as fielding many new candidates. The propaganda about how Modi made Gujarat the most prosperous State where companies were flocking to invest helped raise his profile among middle-class voters. The reality, however, is somewhat different, say Modis critics. Gujarat has been one of the most industrialised States for decades, and it has a rich history of trade and commerce since it has a long coastline. Narendra Modi cannot claim the credit for this economic success, they say.
Gujarat has remained among the top three of the 15 largest States in India in attracting industrial investments all through the 1990s and the early part of this decade. Its growth has remained stable. Modi has not been the Chief Minister throughout this period, says economist Darshini Mahadevia, co-author of the Gujarat Human Development Report, 2004 (An All Too Inhuman Index, Tehelka, December 15 , 2007). But industrial investments did not translate into per capita incomes because of their capital intensiveness. Gujarat has remained at the fourth position in terms of per capita income since the 1990s.
Yet, growth has not translated into human development. The Gujarat Human Development Report, 2004, has discussed at length the distorted path of growth in Gujarat. In particular, the divergence between the manufacturing and agriculture sectors, between urban and rural Gujarat, and between economic growth and peoples well-being, says Mahadevia.
Gujarats economy may be growing faster than the rest of Indias, but so is environmental destruction, says Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice-Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapeeth (An Empowerment Tied To Subjugation, Tehelka, December 29, 2007). The economy is dominated by resource-hungry and inefficient polluters operating mines, textile mills, chemical and petrochemical factories, construction industries and pharmaceutical firms. Furthermore, Vibrant Gujarat is full of proposals for chemical, petrochemical and other polluting industries that are already there in plenty. The Gujarat government has been party to the environmental damage. State policies have appropriated all rights to land, forests and water. Influential private interests in a nexus with politicians and the bureaucracy have mindlessly exploited natural resources.
More than 500 corpses of farmers who committed suicide in the past five years, and many more who have died silent deaths from the lethal pollution in Gujarats industrial belt called the Golden Corridor, are also part of the legacy of Narendra Modis Vibrant Gujarat.
None of these harsh realities was ever addressed in the BJPs election campaign. Will the people unmask Modis propaganda in the next five years?