Gujarat game plan

Print edition : August 03, 2002

Chief Minister Narendra Modi's strategy of calling for early elections in Gujarat may not pay off in the face of voter anger, an invigorated Congress(I) and his party's poor record in governance.

IT was politics that incited a mob to loot and burn her house. Still, politics is the last thing on Asiabibi Sayeed Ansari's mind. Asiabibi, who is at the Bakar Shah Roja relief camp in Ahmedabad, is not even certain where her next meal will come from. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State has delisted and stopped supplies to the camp, although around 650 people are sheltered there. On July 20, the camp organisers said they would not be able to cook for the refugees anymore. "They gave us rations and told us to prepare our own food. But we don't even have vessels to cook in," says Asiabibi. Her house is being reconstructed by a Muslim charity. "The government gave us only Rs.2,000. That will not be enough even to pay for the doors," she says. "They should first make sure that everyone gets back their homes and jobs, then think about elections."

Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Despite his blustering confidence, the coming elections may not be an easy ride for the BJP.-DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

But Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not bothered about Asiabibi, or the estimated 25,000 other refugees in Gujarat's relief camps. His only priority is to hold elections as soon as possible, to count his votes over their losses. Over 1,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 lakh people were made homeless in the state-supported communal violence. Eager to cash in on what he perceives to be a 'pro-Hindutva' wave, Modi dissolved the Gujarat Assembly on July 19, immediately after the presidential election and asked for early polls. (In the normal course, elections must be held in the State in early 2003.) This led to protests in Parliament; both Houses were adjourned on July 22. The Opposition called for Modi's dismissal and the imposition of President's Rule in the State. But the BJP was in no mood to listen. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said that Modi had handled the riots better than any other Chief Minister in the last 50 years would have done.

Despite Modi's blustering confidence, it may not be an easy ride for the BJP. The Hindutva chariot could get stuck in the mud. A great deal depends on how much support Modi is able to garner within his own party. His egoistic and authoritarian style of functioning has annoyed several senior Ministers and other leaders. Some of them did not approve of the manner in which he handled the post-Godhra violence. They felt that the situation should have been brought under control much earlier. Several Hindu families and businesses also suffered as a result of the prolonged violence. Many local BJP activists were arrested, and this upset their local supporters.

Since Modi has no real mass base, his fate is closely linked to the support of his predecessor Keshubhai Patel. Until now, Keshubhai has kept a low profile. Recently, he was offered the post of party president but he declined it. With a strong base in Saurashtra, where the BJP won 51 of the 58 Assembly seats, he is one of the most powerful Patel leaders. Patels constitute one of the two castes that dominate Gujarat politics and comprise 20 per cent of the State's population. They have been the BJP's strongest supporters. Kshatriyas, who form the other dominant caste, also account for around 20 per cent of the population. They have traditionally supported the Congress(I). The KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) formula has been at the core of the Congress(I)'s election strategy in Gujarat for more than a decade. But its influence among these sections has been under threat ever since the BJP tried to mobilise the tribal people and Dalits to participate in the 1992 Ram Janmabhoomi campaign.

Just a day before the Gujarat Assembly was dissolved, the State Congress(I) jolted itself out of its slumber. Shankarsinh Vaghela, a powerful Kshatriya leader, was appointed Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president. A former BJP stalwart and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, Vaghela rebelled against the BJP in 1995 when his rival Keshubhai Patel was made Chief Minister. Vaghela's entry as Congress(I) chief has changed Gujarat's political atmosphere in several ways. It has revived hopes in the Congress(I), which has remained a weak Opposition party. Vaghela is backed not only by Kshatriyas but also by Hindus belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who comprise around 40 per cent of the population. He had mobilised OBC support for the BJP when he was with the party. Vaghela also has considerable influence with the Gujarati media and with powerful industrial houses such as Reliance and Gujarat Torrent. He is seen as someone who can give Modi a run for his money. Modi and Vaghela worked together as general secretary and president respectively of the State BJP unit from 1985 to 1990. In the coming elections they will clash as chief ministerial candidates.

While the BJP is likely to use the communal card, Vaghela will play caste politics. A crafty operator, Vaghela is capable of making clever manoeuvres. After Keshubhai Patel became the Chief Minister in 1995, Vaghela engineered a split in the BJP, managed to get a large number of MLAs on his side, and formed the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP). At the time of the split, he airlifted the MLAs who supported him to Khajuraho to keep them away from the sphere of influence of the BJP. There have been no defections at the start of the present battle. Vaghela is using against the BJP the party's involvement in the recent communal violence. His election promise is a "riot-free Gujarat".

Voter anger against the BJP government was evident even before the violence. The Congress(I), despite its weak organisational strength, won all elections held in the last two years. In the elections of presidents and vice-presidents of municipalities, held in early July, the Congress(I) wrested power from the BJP in Anand, Khambhat and Borsad and re-established its hold in Petlad. In the district panchayat elections held in September 2000, the BJP lost 23 of the 25 district panchayats and the majority of taluk panchayats. Earlier it had control of 24 district panchayats. In the municipal elections held at the same time, the party lost two crucial municipal corporations, Ahmedabad and Rajkot, which it had ruled for 13 and 24 years respectively. The BJP retained the other four municipal corporations, but its victory margins were lower than earlier.

The BJP has 117 MLAs in the 182-member State Assembly. Party insiders feel that it may not be easy to retain these seats, especially if Keshubhai does not cooperate with Modi. During the last Assembly elections in 1998, it was a triangular fight between the BJP, the Congress(I) and the RJP. The anti-BJP votes split between the RJP and the Congress(I). Many BJP candidates were able to win by narrow margins because of this split, party sources point out.

The 'Hindu vote' that the BJP banks on also seems to be somewhat nebulous, considering the heterogeneous nature of Hindu society. The caste factor is likely to decide voting patterns, especially with the Patels and the Kshatriyas pitted against each other.

The Congress(I) also hopes that public anger against the non-performance of the BJP government will override the Hindutva wave, especially in those places affected by communal violence. The BJP anticipates that the fear generated by the riots will work in its favour - particularly in urban areas and parts of central and eastern Gujarat, where the Sangh Parivar unleashed communal fury. Several parts of the State such as Kutch, Saurashtra, south Gujarat and parts of western Gujarat, remained peaceful. Hence, in these places, survival issues relating to drought, employment and water shortage are likely to influence voters more.

The BJP's bungling in governance and the economic recession are likely to be the issues that will dominate voters' minds although the carnage of the last five months was an attempt to divert attention from these. The State's finances are a shambles. Government debts are mounting. Over the past five years under the BJP, a surplus budget has turned into a negative one. Development work has by and large ground to a halt, with contractors' bills amounting to around Rs.1,000 crores remaining unpaid. Contractors held a demonstration in Gandhinagar recently, demanding payment. The State also faces a power crunch, with a shortfall of around 20 per cent.

Residents of Kutch and Saurashtra are bitter about the corruption involved in the rehabilitation of the earthquake-affected. The government took loans worth $900 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for rehabilitation pruposes. But the ground realities do not indicate that even a tiny fraction of the money was spent.

Gujarat is also reeling under a severe water crisis. This summer, more than 2,000 villages experienced acute water shortages. Around 80 per cent of the State's water resources are in the industrialised southern Gujarat. But much of the water there is polluted with industrial toxins. In north Gujarat, excessive drilling of borewells has resulted in the contamination of water and other problems.

Even before the economy was ruined by the communal carnage, the State had slipped into a recession. "While Modi keeps boasting about foreign direct investment and large companies like Reliance investing here, the State's own industrial base is a shambles. Small and medium industries, which laid the foundation for Gujarat's progress, are in trouble, with around 60 per cent of them either sick or closed," says an industrialist. "Moreover, the State corporations, which gave an impetus to the State's industrial progress by providing support to industry, are also on the verge of closure." These include the Gujarat State Finance Corporation, the Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation, the Gujarat Small Industries Corporation and the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. It is estimated that around five lakh workers have lost their jobs owing to the closure of small-scale units. Many others, who worked in allied industries, have suffered job losses. The communal carnage, which ensured the destruction of several small businesses, shops and cafes, has made matters worse for Gujarat's economy. Besides, several other businesses have suffered crippling losses owing to prolonged closures during months of curfew. The situation is so bad that four families in Ahmedabad, on the verge of financial ruin, committed suicide in July.

Modi pretends that all these hard realities do not exist. His government even denies that people like Asiabibi exist. Their camp has been scratched off government records. They remain displaced in their own homeland. The next few months will tell how the people will respond to Modi's ways.

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