Modi versus the rest

Print edition : November 16, 2012

A supporter holds up a mask of Chief Minister Narendra Modi during his month-long Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra at Pavagadh, on October 11.-AJIT SOLANKI/ AP

For a change, the Congress goes on the offensive in Gujarat and there are some 10 new entrants in the fray. This makes the result a little uncertain, but the BJP appears to have a thin edge.

Gujarats Assembly elections, scheduled for December 13 and 17, will primarily be a fight between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, with the former having a slight edge over the latter. However, the BJP is not expected to have it as easy as before because more vote divisions are likely due to the entry of more than 10 other national and regional parties. A BJP source admitted that the vote sharing could be a show spoiler for both the BJP and the Congress. Parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Janata Dal (United), the Samajwadi Party, Ram Vilas Paswans Lok Janshakti Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) may all end up eating into the Congress secular vote, but their presence is a cause of tension to the BJP as well. The BJP is also likely to face a threat from former BJP leader Keshubhai Patels Gujarat Parivartan Party and also from the Shiv Sena.

Apart from the spoiler effect, there are other reasons why Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not have a clear view of the winning post this time. For a while now, there has been simmering anger among bureaucrats and local government officials who say they have been operating in a situation dominated by fear. One police officer told Frontline: You are either with him or against himthere is no in between. And if you are seen as against him, then even God cannot help you. Anxious about their careers, many officials have walked the thin line between being outright yes-men and keeping a low profile. Inevitably, governance has suffered. Indeed, the Congress seems to be taking advantage of this. Manish Doshi, the Congress spokesperson, has announced that the focus of its campaign was the arrogance of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi versus democratic values [required for good governance].

Voters gave Modi a clear mandate to rule for over a decade and sections of them benefited in terms of economic growth. From an administrative point of view, too, the political continuity has worked well for the State infrastructure and industry, both commonly denominated totem poles of success, have benefited greatly. Gujarats roads, in terms of network and motorability, are superb as are the emergency medical services on highways. But the stability offered by this political continuity does not reflect in many other aspects. Modi has focussed on some areas that he sees as crucial to keeping the party in power. Other soft issues such as tribal welfare; well-being of all communities, especially Muslims; agriculture; and environmental regulation have been neglected.

In September last year, with the elections in view, Modi launched a Sadhbhavana Yatra to promote peace, harmony and unity in the State. It was viewed as an attempt by him to appear as a benevolent and much-beloved leader. The yatra covered much ground in the State and Modi observed a total of 36 fasts in 26 districts over the period, but ultimately it was rightly seen for what it wasan exercise in public relations.

Though Modi continues to enjoy the confidence of the average voter in the State, his image and that of the BJP have become a bit soiled after his blatant bid to step up to national-level politics and the subsequent slap-down he received because of politicking within the party.

The Gujarat Congress, after years of somnolence, has roused itself for this election and pulled itself together to actually resemble an opposition party. The Congress battle cry this time will not be Godhra and the ensuing atrocities. There is a need to tone that downGujaratis were beginning to turn deaf at the word Godhra, said a Congressman, who hastened to add that this did not mean that the party was willing to let that be a bygone. The BJP has a tendency to fan communal flames and we play this up in the campaignits just that we will not lead the charge with Godhra.

Even the war-like terminology being used shows a new and aggressive Congress. Yatras, agitations and various people-oriented actions constitute the partys strategya welcome change from the submissive, beaten thing that the Gujarat Congress had become over the last decade. So galvanised is the party that its war wagon rolled out long before the election dates were announced. So far, State-level leaders have travelled extensively for programmes like the Hisab do Jawab, which is a call for a statement of accounts from the BJP; the Sardar Sandesh Yatra, meant to link the Congress with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel; Adivasi Adhikar Yatra for tribal rights; and the Kinaro Bachao Yatra for the fishing community.

Role reversal

It is an interesting reversal because it is normally Modi who is on the offensive first. In fact, the Congress multi-pronged attack using street agitations, print and television advertising campaigns and online campaigns (clearly aimed at winning the young voter) have put Modi in the unusual position of being defensive. And its populist promise of houses for women of the lower income group has been an instant success.

FORMER CHIEF MINISTER Keshubhai Patel while campaigning in Surat on October 21.-PTI

Interestingly, though the Congress is downplaying Godhra and the Muslim card, Modi is keeping it alive. His statement that this election was a battle between the BJP and the CBI is a testament to this. Which is why he may have seen it as a small triumph when Amit Shah was permitted by the Supreme Court to return to Gujarat after being banned from the State for more than two years. Shah, a former Minister and Modi aide, is the prime accused in the two fake encounter cases in which Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Tulsiram Prajapati were killed. However, at the same time, the Supreme Court also transferred the same case out of Gujarat to Mumbai so as to ensure a fair trailnot exactly a vote of confidence in Modis government as he had tried to portray it after Shah was released on bail. The Naroda Patiya verdict in which former Minister Maya Kodnani was jailed for life was also a black mark against Modi and his rule.

Keshubhai Patels Gujarat Parivartan Party is expected to harry the BJP. A BJP member until his resignation in August from the party, Patel, a former Chief Minister, is a force to reckon with because of his community affiliations. The Patels of Saurashtra have always played a role in Gujarat politics though it is significant that in 2007, at the peak of his power, Modi managed to influence this community as well.

There is great political rivalry between Modi and Patel and the latter had urged his community to oust Modi in 2007 but clearly the Modi magic was stronger than community ties then. No great change is expected of Patels recently formed party. But it says a lot about the condition of Gujarats politics that a party formed by an octogenarian politician is also considered a threat to Modi.

Additionally, this election will be different because of the delimitation exercise that has been carried out. With the boundaries of more than 60 of the 182 constituencies being redrawn, there will be a change in the demographics and in the profiles of voters within the newly drawn constituencies, leaving local politicians uncertain about their hold on the population and its affiliations.

While the issues in this election essentially remain roti, kapda aur makaan, what sets it apart is that it will not be as personality-driven as the elections of 2001 and 2007. To that extent, Gujarats longest-serving Chief Minister has a tougher fight ahead of him.

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