Narendra Modi is likely to win again. And again the secularists will grapple in the dark for reasons. It is becoming a predictable routine.
In 2002, they called Modi a criminal fanatic and held his government responsible for scores of deaths. They were confident that the good sense of the majority of Hindus in Gujarat would prevail. They believed that the politics of hate never worked. But Modi could have lost only if a vast section of Hindus voted against him for the complicity of his government in the riots. They did not.
Demonised by the secularists, Modi gratefully recast that gift of a larger-than-life stature into a demi-god mould in 2002. It appealed to Gujarati pride. Many Hindus were sold on his Musharraf-versus-Modi dramatics. Others feared Muslim retribution for the riots in the absence of a pro-Hindu administration. Accounting for around 10 percent of the population, Muslims did not matter. They were anyway browbeaten.
Anti-incumbency, not secularism, worked in the poor regions of southern Gujarat such as Dangs, riot-unaffected Saurashtra, and the quake-hit, relief-starved Kutch where the Congress did well. But the riot-affected areas were swept by the BJP. The secularists were shocked as Modi romped home with 126 seats out of 182. But the mandate only proved that many in Gujarat felt vindicated by the anti-Muslim riots. Others were too busy surviving or plain scared to cast that conscience vote the righteous was confident would topple Modi.
The sulking secularists did not learn their lesson and went on claiming that the frenzy of Hindutva would not last long. But Modi never claimed it would, not on its own. So by 2007, he would project himself as the dedicated CEO of the state. On one hand, the ‘maryada purushottam’ image was bolstered as the iron man repeatedly told Gujaratis how he was ready to die for them and linked it to his anti-terrorism plank. On the other, Modi reinvented himself as the Vikas Purush.
The marriage of Hindutva and development appeared seamless with the easing of communal tension due to the shrinking space for Muslim resistance and fewer curfew hours helping businesses. At the same time, electricity and water reached many villages. Agriculture and real estate sectors flourished. It rained well throughout the term. But Modi’s development model was largely about incentivising the rich at the cost of the poor. But the opposition did not target this skewed growth model.
Instead, the Congress tried to correct its 2002 strategy when it had gone soft on the riots. It tried to take Modi on, attacking his secular credentials, but five years too late. Sonia’s Maut ki Saudagar barb helped Modi stoke the Hindutva fire. While the opposition harped on old communal records, Modi brandished his consistent success in curbing terrorism in the state. Worse, the Congress gave tickets to BJP rebels who had led riotous mobs.
While the secularists barked up the wrong tree, anti-incumbency still brought the BJP’s seats down to 117. Yet, for the second time, Modi rubbed it in. In 2002, the secular intelligentsia helped build his super-human cult and the secular opposition shied away from affronting Hindu sentiments. In 2007, they let Modi define the rules of engagement, helped him revive the Hindutva plank and failed to challenge his ‘vikaspurush’ credentials.
If Modi wins this week as predicted, it should not shock the secularists yet again. He has shaped this election as a referendum on his cult that now has national aspirations. Yet, Modi has not fielded a single Muslim candidate lest the state’s disgruntled Hindu hardlinersmake an electoral issue of it. For once, he does not have major pegs to rev up Hindu sentiments and is desperate enough to harp on the apparent Congress plan to plant an “Ahmad-mian Patel” as CM in Gujarat.
His government’s performance has improved in the social sector, particularly in health and education as school dropout rates have fallen. The Vikas Purush brand, though, took a hit when lakhs of poor women lined up to collect forms distributed by the Congress across the state with the promise of a 100-yard plot and Rs 1 lakh loan for house construction if voted to power. A stumped Modi promptly promised in his poll manifesto to build 5 million houses at a cost of Rs 330 billion under Mukhya Mantri Gruh Samrddhi Yojana. For once, he looked shaky.
The Modi government has also failed to arrest the alarmingly high rate of female foeticide among the rich, take water to places such as Sabarkantha or set up quality higher education institutes in the state. The huge land stock with the government is being doled out to boost industries irrespective of its social and environmental consequences even in fragile landscapes such as Kutch.
These are not issues the secular opposition has highlighted during the election campaign. Little has been debated about Modi’s refusal to appoint a Lokayukta in a state where the political clout of industries, big farmers and real estate groups rivals that of the politicians. Among the contestants this year, across parties, there are 147 crorepatis and 104 with declared criminal records. No wonder the opposition’s demand for a watchdog has remained feeble.
Ironically, none of the factors that may actually hurt Modi this election is a secular issue. He faces resistance from hardliners in the Sangh as Leuva Patel leaders led by Keshubhai and friends-turned-detractors such as PravinTogadia have come together in the Saurashtra-Kutch region. The support of the largest Gujarati community of Kolis is no more secure as their leader and Modi aide Purshottam Solanki has been accused in a multi-crore fisheries scam. Also, delimitation of constituencies has made Muslims votes the key in at least a dozen constituencies.
Chances are Modi will overcome these hiccups. None of these factors are likely to decidedly erode his votebank, particularly among the youth, who want a ‘good’and ‘safe’ life irrespective of its immediate and long term human, social, economic or environmental cost. There is one myth bigger than Modi-the-superman, or secularism itself. It is about humanity and its inherent goodness and wisdom. The sooner we come to terms with that the better.