Gujarat Assembly election 2017: The (d)evolution of BJP-Congress poll rhetoric since Uttar Pradesh polls
Fever pitch campaigning ahead of Gujarat polls by both the parties brings back memories of Uttar Pradesh elections which was the last major litmus test for the BJP.
With campaigning for Gujarat Assembly elections entering its final day, poll fever is getting shriller and acrimonious in the state. After 49 days of intense campaigning, where leaders from the BJP and the Congress descended on the state, the poll rhetoric in Gujarat has gone from bad to worse (which is the case during most elections in India).
While the initial poll speeches revolved around issues like development, uplifting backward castes, pushing for better infrastructure in the state and criticising the government’s policies, the rhetoric has come down to vicious personal attacks and moved away from issues which matter. However, that shouldn’t surprise anyone as that is the tradition with all elections in India.
Since 2015, elections in India have presumed newfound importance because of two reasons. First of all, BJP’s fortunes have been shining ever since 2014 General Elections. In the five-state election in 2016, BJP’s extraordinary performance fostered their aspiration for what the party leadership had labelled Congress-mukt Bharat. Second of all, Congress was (is) facing its worst electoral phase since its conception. Rout after rout coupled with weak higher leadership was hurting the party more than ever.
Fever pitch campaigning ahead of Gujarat polls by both the parties brings back memories of Uttar Pradesh elections which was the last major litmus test for the BJP. In an unprecedented victory, the party shot to power in the state after 14 years — the BJP won a two-thirds majority in Uttar Pradesh — 325 seats with an 81 percent strike rate and 41.5 percent vote share. Majority of the opinion polls predicted a hung Assembly in the state. Congress, which had allied with the Samajwadi Party, which together could bag only 55 seats in the state Assembly in March this year.
Gujarat, for different reasons, is as important than Uttar Pradesh. Historically a trade state, Gujarat is Modi’s pride. Losing Gujarat, where the BJP has been ruling for the past 22 years, will be a terrible fall of face for Gujarat and even though elections in Gujarat are being fought on different issues than they were fought in Uttar Pradesh, there are several parallels which can be drawn between the two polls and the parties’ rhetoric in the run-up to the elections:
Importance of Gujarat versus importance of Uttar Pradesh
For BJP both, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are important — Gujarat for Modi is about pride, Uttar Pradesh was crucial for the numbers it got the BJP. While the prime minister has been harping on Gujarati Asmita and taking digs at the Congress in Gujarat, in Uttar Pradesh, Modi stressed on the need for development in the state and insisted on bringing back BJP from the 14 years of vanvaas. Referring to the period of 14 years the BJP was out of power in Uttar Pradesh, Modi stressed it was not a vanvaas (exile) of his party but that of the development in the state. "That 14 year exile will end," Modi promised, as he sought a full majority government for his party in 2017. "The parivartan (change) needs to be total, like the mandate he secured at the Centre in 2014," he said.
Comparatively, in Gujarat Modi or the BJP leaders reiterated the work done by the party in the past several years while slamming the Congress for its dynastic and casteist politics in the state. This is the first time that Modi is campaigning in the state not as a chief minister which has also affected the image of the party. Since the ouster of Anandiben Patel and the ascension of Vijay Rupani as the chief minister the image of the party has taken a beating in the state. This election the BJP's sole strategy was to resell Modi as a motif. As ground reports from Gujarat noted that the BJP being forced to go from door-to-door to resell Modi in Gujarat is the "defining story of this election." For nearly two decades, it had taken it easy, relying on Modi's image, record and high rhetoric. But, this year, it has been forced to push its infantry into the battle.
On the contrary, in Uttar Pradesh where Mulayam-Akhilesh's Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party stood at the forefront, the BJP's strategy was to attack the lack of development in the state and the need for parivartan or change.
Multi-party fight versus bipolar fight
In Uttar Pradesh, BJP's victory was deemed unbelievable and left even the most optimistic cadres dazed and left everyone questioning what the BJP did correctly when it devised and executed its electoral strategy that turned the state completely saffron. Modi attacked the lax governance and the deteriorating law and order situation under the Akhilesh government.
Modi, while rallying in Uttar Pradesh, asked people to "rid the state of SCAM — S for Samajwadi (party), C for Congress, A for Akhilesh (Yadav) and M for Mayawati."
In Gujarat, it's a bipolar battle. The allegations are more direct and the recipients are few. As Modi continues to attack Congress and Rahul Gandhi over dynastic politics and the party's "need" to play caste politics, BJP's rhetoric, in fact, shifted from vikaas to caste with Modi picking up a comment by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar to spin it into an assault on his "low caste", and in the final leg is resting on the issue of terrorism and Muslims. The two chief campaigners from BJP — Modi and Amit Shah — kept reminding the electorate on how "Gujarat was under curfew" during the Congress rule before 22 years.
Demonetisation then, GST now
During the Uttar Pradesh elections, the biggest weapon in the hands of the SP-Congress combine and the BSP was the then freshly-introduced demonetisation decision — the move had sent ripples across the country and had given the Opposition a major ammunition to beat the Centre with. The Congress had targetted the BJP and Modi over the latter's apparent apathy towards the general public and also questioned the Centre over its promise of bringing back black money.
In February 2017, while addressing a rally in Jhansi, Akhilesh had said, "BJP has put common man in queue for their own money. Now in the elections they will once again queue up against BJP. BJP has come to know about the people’s mind and after the third and fourth phase, blood pressure of BJP leaders will have to be checked."
"After showing film of acche din to people now he (Modi) is acting like Gabbar Singh of Sholay and says he wants to fight corruption and turned your hard-earned money into paper. Now people will take revenge," Rahul had said.
In the run-up to Gujarat polls, Congress has substituted the issue of demonetisation with GST. While campaigning for the Assembly election in the state, Rahul attacked Modi for causing losses to small traders in the state and asked whether his government would take responsibility for that. Taking forward his 'one question a day' series, Gandhi said BJP's twin moves of demonetisation in November last year and the implementation of GST in July this year have hit small traders of Gujarat and caused losses to the state's business hubs such as Surat and Rajkot.
"Small traders are high and dry while major industrialists are thriving. Demonetisation and GST have hit trade hard in Surat, Rajkot, Alang and Anjar. Will your government take responsibility?" Rahul asked Modi ahead of the second-phase polling in northern and central Gujarat.
In November, facing traders battered by his government's twin back-to-back disruptions, demonetisation followed by GST, Modi seemed to distance himself and his government from the GST implementation pain saying the tax reform was a 'collective decision'. "It is not BJP alone, all political parties, including the Congress party, and all states are partners in this (GST) decision. The Centre is only a 30th part in the entire GST Council," the prime minister said.
BJP's defensive attitude while saving itself from any attack brought forth the point that the party might be worried of how Gujarat, a historically trade state, might react (or punish) the government. However, as this article argues, it is wrong to compare GST effects on small traders to that caused by demonetisation. GST is a progressive reform step that India needed to embrace at some point, sooner than later. More than a decade was lost in the political tug-of-war after the idea was first discussed in Parliament.
Finally, an adopted son of Uttar Pradesh is a son of soil in Gujarat
Modi's emotional pleas to voters is nothing new. Starting from his first speech as the Prime Minister in Parliament in 2014 to his "teary-eyed" appeal to people to support the decisions made by the Centre which are for the greater good, Modi is known to add that twist in his speeches.
Calling himself an "adopted son" of Uttar Pradesh, Modi had said that the future of the state could not be ensured without ridding it of the SP, the BSP and the Congress. Modi, who represents the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, invoked Lord Krishna at an election meeting in Hardoi to suggest a strong connect between Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
"Lord Krishna was born in Uttar Pradesh and made Gujarat his karmbhoomi (land of work). I was born in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh has adopted me ... Uttar Pradesh is my mai baap. I am not the son who would betray his mai baap. You have adopted me and it is my duty to work for you," he said in "an emotional speech at a poll rally".
"Vote for a full majority to the BJP government. I promise to show you the ways out of all the problems you are facing within five years,” he said, telling the impressive crowd that all pollsters have predicted the BJP would get massive support in the first two phases of polling.
In Gujarat, meanwhile, Modi's emotional pitch differed.
"This Gujarat son has no stains in his public life. You come to the state and level baseless allegations against the son of the soil, but people of the State will not forgive you," Modi said in Bhuj last month launching BJP's poll campaign. "The Congress had treated Sardar Patel similarly."
"They speak about Sardar Patel but the diary of Maniben Patel revealed how he was treated. Then, Morarji Desai, another son of Gujarat and Gandhian, was removed from the Cabinet by Indiraji. The fact is the Congress hates Gujaratis," Modi said. Pitching the elections as a battle between development and dynasty, Modi said the Congress had never bothered about the welfare of people and only cared for one family, and all other important leaders of the party were relegated.
Gujarat isn't Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat remain strategically crucial for BJP yet immensely different in the way the party's strategy changes in the two states. While BJP came out victorious in Uttar Pradesh, poll pundits and opinion polls have predicted that Gujarat Assembly election 2017 may not be an easy victory for the party after all.
In a major turnaround, the poll has predicted that Congress will give the BJP a tough time in the upcoming polls. It said that in the 182-member Assembly, BJP is likely to win 91-99 seats while the Congress will bag 78-86 seats, according to ABP Live.
It further predicted that both, the Congress and the BJP will get around 43 percent of the votes each. The Patidar community, traditionally constituting a vote bank for BJP, will slide towards the Congress, predicted the opinion poll.
This prediction is a massive turnaround from the one the poll had made in August, when it had predicted that BJP will win 144-152 seats in the Assembly while Congress will manage to win only 26-32, according to The Times of India. By October, this number for the BJP had fallen to 113-121 while for the Congress, it had risen to 58-64.
However, if BJP's tally is neck-to-neck with the Congress, even that is a huge fall of face for the saffron party in Modi's homestate.