One-horse race

Print edition : December 07, 2007

Chief Minister Narendra Modi at the State BJP headquarters on November 15. - PTI

Narendra Modi rides high in the absence of an effective Opposition in Gujarat.

Chief Minister Narendra

HOBSONS choice. The phrase is said to have originated with Thomas Hobson, a livery stable owner at Cambridge, England, who, in order to rotate the use of his horses, offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.

In the Gujarat elections, it is not even a Hobsons choice. There seems to be only one horse. The Opposition is so fractured that it is still trying to hobble into the stall. In a one-horse town, Narendra Modi, the Nero who fiddled while Gujarat burned, has the lead by default. In a State where there is a political vacuum, he appears larger than life. So, despite a fractured party and a State in disarray, Modi is firmly in control a month before the Assembly elections.

Of course, propaganda helps, too. All across the State, huge cutouts and billboards touting Modis achievements and projecting him as the hero of Gujarat dot the landscape. In the last six months, Modi has spent Rs.750 crore on propaganda equivalent to the amount the government spends on social welfare and nutrition, alleges Arjun Modhvadia, Leader of the Opposition in Gujarat.

Modi won the 2002 elections with a huge majority (126 of 182 seats) by creating communal hysteria after the Godhra tragedy. More than 1,000 people were killed and 100,000 made homeless in the state-sponsored communal pogrom that followed. Five years later, in Modis regime, Muslims (who comprise 9 per cent of the population) have been totally marginalised. They are second class citizens.

In his 2002 campaign, Modi rebutted his mass murderer label by accusing his critics of maligning Gujarats gaurav (pride). Even today, Modi continues with his Gujarat Gaurav campaign in a new avatar it is now a Vibrant Gujarat that he is boasting of. In the election of 2007, the Hindutva stance is less aggressive. Communalism is not the overriding issue. Inequality in Gujarat has risen sharply. Now, Modi has to create an illusion of prosperity, even if people are starving and farmers are killing themselves. Even death is vibrant.

Gujarat is Indias number one State in all aspects of development, says Vijay Rupani, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson. We have attracted Rs.94,000 crore in investments. Its more than the combined investment in the four other States after us. We have 24-hour electricity in all 18,000 villages. The Narmada waters have reached the drought areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat. Our government has worked.

However, the Congress has a barrage of statistics to refute the claims. Modi has always believed that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, and that is what he is trying to do again with this bogus Vibrant Gujarat propaganda, says Modhvadia. Gujarat has ranked fifth in attracting investments, which is not saying much for a State that has been the most prosperous for the last two decades. Gujarat is also the most indebted State in India.

The BJP has alienated important sections of the electorate, including the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), its farmers wing. Angered by the power crisis, the BKS launched a State-wide protest against its own party. Most villages get only around six or eight hours of power in a day, compared with 14 hours a few years ago.

The Gujarat Electricity Board (GEB) has registered cases against 156,000 farmers for electricity theft, which has led to frequent scuffles between farmers and GEB staff. The BKS has also been highlighting cases of farmers suicide in Saurashtra and central Gujarat. In the past two years, more than 400 farmers have killed themselves. The number is likely to be an underestimation as the police sometimes fail to record suicides.

There are distortions in Gujarats growth, says Indira Hirway, economist with the Centre for Development Alternatives. Poverty has declined by only 0.22 per cent a year, not in step with the 7 per cent economic growth rate. Inequality is increasing. While cities are expanding, tribal areas and water-starved regions are lagging behind. Unemployment is rising as small-scale industries shut down and capital-intensive investments are not filling the gap. The economic growth rate hides the widespread environmental degradation that is taking place. If the loss of environmental capital is included, the economic growth rate would be much less, says Hirway.

Modi boasts of keeping Gujarat safe from terrorism, but who will protect people from the terror of the state? Here, there is planned lawlessness. Most of the culprits of the communal pogrom roam the streets freely, while the victims go on living like refugees. Many of those who testified against BJP leaders and their cadre have had criminal cases filed against them. Witnesses face constant intimidation and get no protection from the police. In fact, the Gujarat police closed more than half of the 4,252 cases as true but undetected and deliberately concealed damning evidence. The police and the judicial machinery are run by Sangh Parivar cadre, who are doing their best to make sure the guilty are let off the hook.

Even the Tehelka sting operation on the Gujarat pogrom has been ignored though it provides hard evidence of how top Sangh Parivar leaders, including Modi, planned the communal massacre. The Tehelka tapes have several Sangh Parivar leaders on camera boasting about the gory killings: how they planned the pogrom and later manipulated the judicial system to protect the culprits.

There is enough ground to arrest those captured on camera and call them in for questioning. But the police will not do it because they abetted the killings and cannot anger their political bosses. The victims of the massacre and human rights groups have given up filing cases with the police. The only Opposition force, the Congress, is afraid that any mention of the 2002 carnage will portray the party as anti-Hindu and increase Modis popularity. Its leaders dodge the issue even more than the BJP does. It is a conspiracy of silence.

Dissenting BJP Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) broke with the party over the Chief Ministers authoritarian style of functioning. Many are from the Keshubhai Patel (former Chief Minister) faction and are from the powerful Patel community. Among them is former Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia, who was in charge during the pogrom. The Congress is unwilling to put him up as a candidate but gets his support from the outside. Eight sitting MLAs and several new candidates from our faction will be contesting on the Congress ticket, says Suresh Mehta, a senior BJP leader now turned dissident. So, the Congress may just well be the BJPs B Team, contesting an election with no clear candidate for Chief Minister.

In the late 1970s, the Congress swept to power in Gujarat by forming a coalition of the underdogs. Using the KHAM formula (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim), it mobilised support from those who previously had no political voice. Now, the party wants to distance itself from Muslims and has neglected its Adivasi and Dalit support bases.

Yet, the Congress keeps trying to convince itself that the tide is turning against Modi though his popularity in Gujarat has remained unparalleled. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 12 of 26 seats. The BJP won 14 seats. If these results were analysed in terms of the 182 Assembly constituencies in Gujarat, both parties would have won 90 seats each, says Manish Tewari, All India Congress secretary, in an article in The Indian Express (October 20).

Moreover, in the 2002 State elections, the Congress lost by very narrow margins in several constituencies. In 20 constituencies, it would have won if Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) or Samajwadi Party candidates had not stolen tiny but decisive shares of the vote (The spoiler in Gujarat, P. Sainath; Frontline, January 31, 2003). The Congress has allied itself with the NCP this time in the hope of improving its chances in these constituencies. Until now, nothing seems to have diminished Modis power in the State.

Is it because there is no one to take him on? Are there no other horses that can make their way into Hobsons stable?

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