Asembly Elections/Gujarat

The communal card again

Print edition : December 22, 2017

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi offering prayers at the Somnath temple on November 29. Photo: PTI

At an election campaign rally in Morbi on November 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while referring to a picture published in a magazine that showed the former Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi covering her nose with a hanky to avoid the foul smell of the city. Photo: PTI

A section of the crowd at the PAAS election rally in Rajkot on November 29. Photo: Vijay Soneji

The PAAS leader Hardik Patel at the election rally in Rajkot on November 29. Photo: Vijay Soneji

The BJP once again takes recourse to communal propaganda in a desperate bid to recapture the initiative on the campaign front from the opposition, comprising the Congress and the three young community leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) effort to once again convert the Gujarat elections—scheduled to be held in two phases on December 9 and 14—into a communally polarised exercise was apparent right from the day of the announcement of the election dates. But it became an all-too-vulgar campaign on November 29, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his barnstorming tour across the State. He toured the districts of Morbi, Junagadh, Bhavnagar and Surat in south Gujarat, where polling will be held in the first phase.

On the same day, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was campaigning in another part of Saurashtra, and his programme included a visit to the Somnath temple in Prabhas Patan. Within a few hours of his temple visit, State BJP leaders launched a vitriolic communal propaganda saying that Rahul Gandhi was not a Hindu and that this had been proved by the entries made in the temple register when his entourage entered the temple. Sangh Parivar social media warriors soon came up with the hashtags #Rahul_Ka_Dharm_ Kya and #SomnathTemple, and these started trending. Even as a hashmob began to gather around the hastags, Modi mocked Rahul Gandhi’s temple trips as hypocrisy and said that his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had opposed the reconstruction of the Somnath temple.

“If there was no Sardar Patel, the temple in Somnath would never have been possible,” Modi said, adding grist to the communal mill.

Rahul Gandhi’s entourage consisted of non-Hindu leaders like Ahmed Patel, and according to State Congress leader Shakthi Singh Gohil, the entry in the temple register was not made by any senior leader of the party.

“It must have been either somebody from the temple staff or a lower-level activist of the party who knew that there were Muslims like Ahmed Patel and other non-Hindus in the team that visited the temple. They must have taken the group collectively as one and opted for non-Hindu entry, which is permitted by the temple authorities,” Gohil told Frontline over the phone. The senior leader also pointed out that the entry in the register had misspelled Ahmed Patel’s name as “Ahamed Patel”, and Rahul Gandhi’s name was given as “Rahul Gandhiji”. “Is it possible that Ahmed Patel would misspell his own name?” Gohil asked. Several local Congress leaders and political observers pointed out that it was also unlikely that the party vice president would refer to himself as “Rahul Gandhiji”.

All these reasonings, however, were ignored by the State BJP leadership. The clamour it started on November 29 was carried forward to the next day with vociferous demands for Rahul Gandhi to prove his Hindu religious identity.

While this incident marked the most blatant and formal recourse by the BJP leadership to communal propaganda, the party’s social media warriors launched similar communal campaigns using handles not directly linked to the BJP. A Whatsapp message that did the rounds across Gujarat said: “RAM—Rupani, Amit, Modi. HAJ—Hardik, Alpesh, Jignesh. RAM versus HAJ. Who should win? Vote wisely.” Evidently, the BJP leadership, comprising Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, party president Amit Shah and Modi, is being symbolised as representing Lord Ram, while the acronym created with the first letters of the three young community leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani seeks to portray them as representing the Muslim religious pilgrimage of Haj. Yet another campaign highlights the Italian antecedents of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and argues how this “foreigner” and her son are not fit to rule the proud Hindu region, Gujarat.

Devious tactics

Referring to this and other such campaigns, the Ahmedabad-based senior advocate and political commentator Yatin Oza told Frontline that the BJP was increasingly resorting to devious tactics and that this highlighted the desperation that had engulfed the party leadership. He said: “These campaigns signify a huge urge within the BJP leadership to camouflage and even run away from core issues that are tormenting the people, such as the crisis in the agrarian sector and problems in public health and education. Even widely discussed matters among traders and the middle class such as demonetisation and the impact of the Goods and Services Tax [GST] are not being addressed by most of the BJP leaders. They do not want to touch on any of these issues. Modi does make some reference to some of these questions, such as GST, but while doing so the focus is not on his governance track record at the Centre since 2014 but on the Congress regimes of the past and their foibles. I have been hearing from common people across Gujarat that he is sounding more and more like a repetition of the aggressive and oppositional campaign that he carried out in 2014. People have started asking what is the meaning of his maximum governance concept if he has to continue in the mode of criticising past governments even now.” Oza is also of the view that the creation of a controversy around Rahul Gandhi’s Somnath temple entry was perceived by large sections of the population with derision. “My own reading is that this too has backfired,” Oza said.

Oza’s comment that Modi was repeating the 2014 campaign finds an echo among diverse segments of society. A group of farmers from the Bhadla region of Rajkot who attended the Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s (PAAS) rally in Rajkot on November 29, the same day Modi addressed rallies in the four southern districts, highlighted the same point, albeit with some value addition. The farmers said Modi’s current campaign was a repeat of 2014 only as far as castigating the Congress was concerned.

One of them explained: “In 2014, while attacking the Congress he made some promises of his own. He seems to have completely overlooked them now. In 2014, Modi promised that he would raise the minimum support price for groundnut to Rs.1,500 for 20 kilograms. But we are getting only Rs.900 for 20 kg now. He also promised new and elaborate infrastructure through government agencies for the procurement of groundnut for NAFED [National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd]. Nothing has happened on that front, too. This has resulted in unsold produce piling up, with farmers forced to take recourse to desperate selling.” The farmers said that PAAS had started taking up issues concerning farmers, apart from addressing the reservation question, which is championed as its core agenda. They said a large number of farmers were responding with enthusiasm to this new dimension in Hardik Patel’s organisational activity.

Jayesh Patel, a close associate of Hardik Patel and the PAAS convener of Ahmedabad region, told Frontline: “The adoption of the core issues of farmers was a natural progression from the reservation-related agitation because Patidars are essentially a farming community and what we are highlighting at this point of time is once again related to the economic hardships of farmers. This is a natural continuation of reservation, which is also another economic hardship-related issue. But, indeed, the context of the elections have impelled farmers to become more vocal about agrarian issues and that is why we have started raising them more actively.” By highlighting agrarian issues, PAAS has virtually thrown a direct challenge to Modi. This was done by organising a farmers’ rally at Morbi, barely 30 kilometres from where Modi was addressing a rally. The PAAS meeting was a redoubtable show of strength with thousands of farmers attending it. The attendance at Modi’s rally, in comparison, was rated as below par.

Hardik Patel called for an all-out push by farmers to oust the BJP. “We know that the BJP is anti-Patidar and anti-farmer. People may ask if the Congress is pro-Patidar or pro-farmer. We do not know what they will do when they are in power. But at this point of time, our job is to oust the BJP using all means at our disposal. We will see how the Congress functions in power. We can handle them if we show the might and conviction to oust the BJP,” Hardik Patel said. He spoke in a similar vein at Rajkot, too.

Many Sangh Parivar activists, who are working in association with BJP candidates and their teams, admitted to Frontline that the fore-fronting of farmers’ issues by PAAS had added a new impediment for the BJP on the election front. A Vadodara-based Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist said: “When the PAAS campaign was revolving mainly around the reservation issue, we were able to counter it by pointing to the ambiguousness in the Congress position on the issue. But, the championing of these issues by the spirited and extremely vocal youth team of PAAS is creating such reverberations that many of our leaders at the local level have been found wanting in formulating an effective response.”

He added that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s primary counter was that PAAS had diverted its attention to farmers’ issues because it did not get the kind of positive response it expected from the Congress on the reservation question. PAAS, on its part, responded to this by stating that obfuscation had become the central characteristic of the BJP’s electoral postures this time. Its leaders, including Jayesh Patel, expressed confidence that people would see through this and give a fitting reply in the polling booths.

Along with this verbal jousting, cold electoral calculations on both sides are in agreement on the number of seats the PAAS factor, along with the movements led by the Other Backward Classes (OBC) Koli leader Alpesh Thakor and the Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, would have an impact on. The agreement is that the combination of the young leaders and the Congress would make the battle in Saurashtra, which has 54 seats, and north Gujarat, which has 53 seats, more intense than in past elections. While Saurashtra will go to the polls in the first phase along with the 45 seats in southern Gujarat, the election in north Gujarat will take place along with the 40 constituencies in the central region on December 14.

Saurashtra and north Gujarat

The reverberations of the PAAS agitation among the Patidar community have intensified the contest in Saurashtra and north Gujarat. The Patidar community, accounting for approximately 12 per cent of the voters in Gujarat, is considered a strong vote base of the BJP with a significant presence in Rajkot, Surat and Morbi. The expectations in the context of the PAAS campaign is that there will be a decisive shift in the community’s vote away from the BJP. This expectation is strengthened by massive anti-BJP rallies in the region addressed by not only the 24-year-old Patidar leader but also by Rahul Gandhi.

The other important caste group is the Koli-Thakor. This community has a significant presence in Patan, Mehsana, Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts in northern Gujarat. The Dalit community constitutes approximately 7 per cent of the population and is spread across several regions in small clusters. Both these communities mobilised supporters in a big way to rally against the BJP. Dalits rose in revolt against caste-based atrocities, and Thakor-Kolis joined other OBC communities and farmers to demand mitigation of the agrarian distress. Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are contesting the elections, and this has provided enthusiasm to the broad opposition social coalition. Alpesh Thakor is contesting from Radhanpur on the Congress ticket, while Jignesh Mevani is contesting as an independent from Vadgam with the support of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

It is amid the palpable signs of a newly invigorated opposition challenge, especially in the 107 seats of Saurashtra and north Gujarat, that the BJP is seen to be increasingly resorting to communal polarisation of the campaign arena, which has been a sure-fire winner for the party in all Assembly elections held since the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. The Congress, on its part, has been trying to minimise the impact of the communal propaganda through Rahul Gandhi’s concerted and much publicised visits to temples, which, too, has emerged as a key element in the campaign. Before visiting the Somnath temple, Rahul Gandhi paid obeisance at many shrines, including the ones at Dwarka, Ambaji, Chotila and Santrampur.

The Congress has used Ahmed Patel, its prominent Gujarat Muslim face, sparingly in the campaign, according a bigger role to former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. However, the State BJP leadership is of the view that all this effort will come to nought, especially after the controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s Somnath temple visit. The BJP is confident that the dominant Patidar community will once again reassert its Hindutva credentials, notwithstanding its enthusiastic participation in the “childish sociopolitical forays of Hardik Patel, who is not yet old enough to contest elections”.

“Of course, we required a volatile happening to add fire to the Hindutva plank, and this has come from Rahul Gandhi’s Somnath episode,” said a Vadodara-based senior RSS activist. He said this would help the BJP recapture the initiative on the campaign front and in the elections despite the interpretation of commentators such as Oza that the controversy would prove counterproductive for the BJP.

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