Gujarat: Why processes are more fascinating than personalities

Will Narendra Modi win in Gujarat? Will the Congress spring a surprise? Will Keshubhai bring down BJP’s vote share this time? Cannot say. Having covered elections across the country for 15 years as a journalist, I would prefer silence to offering an answer that does not convince me.

The business of making predictions is best left to astrologers. Elections in India are a complex process and there are just too many variables that influence the electoral behaviour. To map all of these and then assess those in terms of impact on voting is a cumbersome task. The macro trends are easily visible and they allow us to draw sweeping conclusions but the micro ones are where the challenge lies. These are what invariably make poll surveys and random predictions of all kind an embarrassing affair, particularly from a journalist’s point of view.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

The study of processes instead of personalities, offers us a clearer understanding of the political dynamics of a state. It is the subtle shift here that decides the results of elections. Every state is product of a combination of several interacting processes and the voting behaviour is rooted in the logic of those processes. That’s the reason every state responds differently during the elections. If you bring in history, sociology and economy into the framework of study, the exercise becomes far more enlightening.

Why, for example, the Gujarat society is so prone to being communally polarised? What makes the Patels or Patidars such a volatile lot? Why is there no trouble for land acquisition for industries in Gujarat when the opposition to the process is so intense in other states? Why don’t we hear of strong caste or community-based middle level leadership like in Uttar Pradesh? What makes poor Human Development Index performance of the state so redundant to the political discourse? You won’t find the answers to these without the evolving socio-economic dynamics of the state for over a century. And without the answers you understanding of the elections remain incomplete.

Gujarat is unlike Uttar Pradesh. "Gujaratis are not a political people. They are a business people. They are happy when they are allowed to do business without hindrances,"’ said social activist and Padma awardee Mallika Sarabhai speaking to Firstpost earlier this month. Other political analysts concur. The electoral process in UP might be messy with so much of caste and communal politics but democracy certainly has travelled deeper in the state. In Gujarat, the primary focus is hardly politics, they say.

Why is it so? "The change in mindset started last century, during the great famine of 1900. The famine made the peasant community aware of the limits of land-based activity. They migrated to urban centres and started participating in trading activities. This trend was renewed in mid-20th century after the Congress government started land reform measures," said social thinker and author Achyut Yagnik, adding migration of peasants from the rural areas to the urban centres—there were 27 as early as 1951—promoted the business culture. Even before the 20th century, Gujarat had a great tradition of mercantilism. It was giving way to the culture of entrepreneurship between the two waves of urbanisation.

Why don’t we hear of land problems in the state? "The Gujaratis are not as sentimental about land as people in other states. They would sell it off without hesitation if the price is good. In many areas farming is not seen as a respectable profession. Farmers are respected more if they are into some business activity as well," said Sanjay Pandey, explaining why farmer revolts are not common in the state.

"Availability of land is never a problem in Gujarat. The state has lots of land unlike other states. However, the problem is what kind of land is being allocated to industries. It’s the fertile land," said Sarabhai. She, however, said that it was wrong to assume that there is no popular opposition to acquisition of land in Gujarat. She said a massive farmers’ protest forced the government to withdraw its go-ahead to the Nirma’s proposed factory. There have been protests on smaller scale too but they never make it to the media, said Pandey.

Why does not Gujarat have a party like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh? One does not hear of strong caste or community leaders who are not attached either to the Congress or the BJP. "Keshubhai is known to be a strong leader from the Leuva Patel community. Purushottamsinh Solanki has strong influence over the Koli community. But the state has a tradition of a bi-party model. There’s no space for a third party. Strong leaders emerging from communities are captured by either of the big parties early," said a senior journalist, who did not want to be named.

"The Left influence was never strong in Gujarat. The Britishers followed the ryotwari system here which left the average peasant free from landlordism. That’s one reason the culture of mass agitations and popular movements is subdued in the state," said senior political observer RK Mishra, while speaking to Firstpost. This also explains why there are not many identity-based parties in Gujarat. Probably Hindutva is the big identity issue here and all other identities get subsumed under it.

The purpose here is not to get into all aspects of Gujarat and but to highlight the fact that each state has its own socio-economic and cultural dynamics influencing respective electoral behaviour. These, and subtle changes within, we could call processes. Understanding these are crucial to grasping why Hindutva and development are a winning combination for Modi; why he cannot manage by de-linking one from the other; why Muslims will continue to remain on the fringes of the Gujarati society; and why the chances of his success at the national level will be open to questions.

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