(Editors Note: A line in the column which mentioned Morarji Desai as the Chief Minister of Gujarat has been corrected. Desai was Chief Minister of the Bombay state that was then broken to form the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.)
by Rajdeep Sardesai
Predicting elections can be injurious to the health of journalists and pollsters, more so when there is still a month to go before voting. Even so, there is near-unanimity that Narendra Modi is poised for a hat-trick of victories in Gujarat. The CNN IBN-The Week-CSDS poll done a fortnight ago, in fact, puts him as much as 14 points ahead, which if translated into seats should give Modi a comprehensive two-thirds majority triumph. The Modi groupies will no doubt attribute a victory solely to the charisma and achievements of the Gujarat Chief Minister. His critics will be quick to point out that Gujarat is sui generis, and a win is the result of communal polarisation in the state. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.
Yes, Gujarat is the first state in the country that can be called a BJP dominant party state. A win in Gujarat in December would be the fifth consecutive win for the BJP, making it a saffron citadel, much like Bengal was once a red fortress, or Maharashtra was a Congress bastion. There are as many as 58 seats in the state which the BJP has never lost in the last four elections, a statistic which confirms the party’s ability to rise above any anti-incumbency factor.
Yes, the 2002 riots may have confirmed the supremacy of the so-called Hindu vote bank, but the fact is the emergence of this vote bank pre-dates the violence. In 1995, for example, the BJP won more than 50 per cent of the vote, proof that the party’s rise is a 1990s phenomenon and the last 10 years have only seen a further consolidation of this vote. Gujarat has been a laboratory for Hindutva politics since the Ayodhya movement and the genesis of the BJP’s rise must be traced back to that defining period when religion and politics became a highly combustible mix.
It is equally true that the ‘development’ agenda of Gujarat didn’t start in 2002 with the ascent of Modi - as the Chief Minister’s astute marketing machine would have us believe. Gujarat chief ministers, from the time of Morarji Desai (of the old Bombay state which existed before May 1, 1960, when it was dissolved and Maharashtra & Gujarat were born as separate states) to a Chimanbhai Patel to a Madhavsinh Solanki, have always had a robust, forward-looking approach to economic progress. Many of the road, irrigation and oil and gas exploration projects are from a previous era. Modi has done a fine job in harnessing Gujarat’s entrepreneurial energies, and his policies on the power sector in particular have been innovative and successful. But to suggest that Gujarat would not have prospered without Modi’s dynamism is to deny credit to the time-tested Gujarati business acumen. Gujarat’s average growth rate in the Eighth Plan (1992-97) was 12.9 per cent. It is now estimated to be around 11.2 per cent for the past five years.
At the same time, it would also be easy to wish away Modi’s own contribution to the BJP’s continuing dominance in the last ten years as his critics often do. There is little doubt that the persona of Modi, first as a Hindu Hriday Samrat, and then as a ‘vikas purush’, has helped the growth of the BJP’s natural constituency. His leadership style maybe authoritarian, even divisive, but its appeal cannot be ignored. On the road with Modi, one is struck for example with the large female and youth following he seems to attract. For both these groups, the Gujarat Chief Minister exudes a certain macho attraction , a belief that he is an all-conquering hero who will single-handedly take on all the enemies of Gujarati ‘asmita’ or ‘pride’ (recall his ‘chappan inch kee chati’ or '56-inch chest' remark from the last election). In a state where politicians have tended to be soft spoken and almost effeminate, and where the Congress has no credible regional ‘face’, Modi stands out with his aggressive CEO style of communication.
Indeed, it would be fair to suggest that brand Modi is well suited to the changing demographics of Gujarat. With a 42 per cent urban population, Gujarat now ranks third to Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra in its urbanisation. There are bustling townships along the highway at almost every 30 kilometres, with hoardings of the latest lifestyle products competing for attention. Large posters of religious sect leaders dot the urban skyline. In no state is the rise of the new urban middle class as visible as it is in the market-driven economy of Gujarat. It is this urban voter, with religion in the heart, consumerism in his head, and a possible NRI cousin in America, who has been a driving force behind Gujarat’s saffron surge. In the last two decades, the BJP has dominated the politics of urban and semi-urban Gujarat by offering stable governance, economic freedom and, yes, overt religiosity that sees the Muslim as the ‘outsider’.
Modi, with his decisive, no-nonsense leadership style, is a symbol of this new Gujarat on the fast track to growth. As the urban-rural divide is slowly blurred, Gujarat’s politics now revolves around the ability to manage the aspirations of the upwardly mobile voter. With a track record of focussed governance and market-friendly policies, Modi appeals to those who are convinced that the state must be, above all else, a facilitator in achieving high growth rates. The land acquisition battles, for example, that resonate in states like West Bengal appear to hold less relevance to the Gujarati land-owner who is simply looking to strike the best deal for his property. And the quality of urban infrastructure – Ahmedabad’s BRT, for instance, is now a model transport system – has only added to the sense of well-being of the core Modi constituency.
So, yes, a Modi win in Gujarat seems a safe bet for now. The nagging question though remains: can Gujarat be a benchmark for measuring popularity in a complex, diverse India?
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 network.