On a misty December morning, residents of Naya Sudamada on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway are busy with tola tappa, the salubrious exercise of sitting in the sun and discussing everything from Virat Kohli to the boy of Viramgaon.
While old men, youngsters and boys gossip about Kohli and Hardik Patel, women peer from behind doors that open in the street. Nearby, some kids play with stray dogs. The tola tappa is interrupted by our arrival in this village that is exactly halfway between Rajkot and Ahmedabad and, thus, the meeting point between north Gujarat and Saurashtra, and urban life and rural living.
As we start talking about elections in Gujarat, men converge upon us, women begin to eavesdrop from behind their veils and the girls stop playing. The stray dogs go into hiding.
What emerges is a story the BJP and the Congress should hear carefully.
There is anger brewing in rural Gujarat. Far from the catchy slogans of vikas, away from the din of Hindutva, the discussion in villages is centred on crops, water and unemployment. Nobody is even remotely bothered about Rohingya, Kashmir, Pakistan, Rahul Gandhi’s religion.
Naya Sudamada has around 600 residents, most of them Patidars. The primary occupation of villagers is farming. Those who do not work on the farms are unemployed. Since most of them have a lot to say but can speak only Gujarati, Sanjay Bhai Patel, a young man whose grey hair make him look older than his age, volunteers to become their voice.
“Vikas gaando thayo chhe,” he begins, quoting a popular slogan that forced the BJP to counter it with ads in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls himself vikas. “There is inflation. Cost of farm inputs have gone up. Prices of crops have failed”, Patel says, as other men exhort him to speak up about their plight. In a chorus led by Patel, villagers say prices of every crop they grow have crashed. “Cotton was selling for Rs 1,500 per 20 kg. Now it is around 900. Prices of guar have fallen by from Rs 1,600 to Rs 600. Groundnut is down from 1,400 to 700. Everything is selling at much lower prices,” he says.
As he speaks, an old man with a spade on his shoulder and a bucket in his other hand interjects. He complains of hardships because of notebandi (demonetisation) and says this time they will get parivartan. “We will uproot the lotus and bury it deep into water,” he says, as others cheer him on.
The bad news for the BJP is that this anger is visible across several parts of Gujarat.
Village after village in Saurashtra and north Gujarat has the same grievances against the government at the Centre and in Gujarat: Farming is no longer financially viable and life in rural Gujarat is a daily struggle. In fact, the anger is so deep-seated among villagers that for the first time in almost 15 years, voters are vocally critical of both the prime minister and the Gujarat chief minister.
Much of this anger is rooted in the hopes villagers had in Modi. They say he had promised 50 per cent profit on the cost of inputs. But, in contrast, prices have actually gone down.
This view is echoed in faraway Radhanpur, in north Gujarat, where villagers of Bismillahpur complain of hardships because of inflation, low income, unemployment and shortage of water. In this Thakor-dominated village, residents have a litany of woes you hear throughout Gujarat. Like farmers everywhere else in Gujarat, they complain also of the inflation triggered by Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced by the government. “Traders are passing it off to us when we buy from them. But, when we go and sell our crops, we do not get any benefits. On cotton we are told there is now eight per cent GST. But what we get on our crops has just gone down,” says Usman Bohra, a frail farmer from Radhanpur.
The BJP may still get the support of angry farmers. In Wakhatpur village, a few kilometers south of Naya Sudamada, villagers complain of falling prices of crops but believe this is a systemic failure only Modi can address. They agree that there is shortage of water, that the Narmada is feeding only villages of Amreli and Kutch. But, they are convinced that Modi will sort out their problems soon. Also, the Patels here do not want the Congress.
But, the problem with both the Congress and the BJP is that their leaders have failed to address the real issues in rural Gujarat. The BJP talks of development, curfew-mukt Gujarat, surgical strikes and fatwas. The Congress is busy attacking crony capitalism, impact of GST on trade and fighting verbal battles on Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits and religion. This disconnect has led to two things. One, both the parties have failed to tap a huge constituency of voters waiting for somebody to address their concerns and, thus, reap an electoral harvest. Two, it has bred contempt for the prevailing rhetoric.
"Everything the two parties say is jarring. We are sick of their attempts to digress, run away from real issues,” says Patel of Naya Sudamada.
Poll campaigners for both the parties have failed to understand that there will be a serious backlash in rural Gujarat against this lack of focus on their plight during the campaign. Both the parties could pay a huge price for fighting a battle of sound bytes, following a personality cult, and thinking more about urban voters and the audience on social media.
Updated Date: Dec 04, 2017 16:56 PM