Yesteryear Bollywood baddie Ajit would have easily recognised the mood of the voter in Gujarat as being in "liquid oxygen". Like he possibly never said, “liquid is not letting him live, oxygen is not letting him die”. Read BJP in place of liquid and Narendra Modi in place of oxygen and you will decode the Gujarat election scene with equal facility.
On the ground, the Gujarat voter has a litany of complaints against the state and Central governments. Businesses are suffering because of the complicated GST mechanism of multiple rate slabs and tedious compliance chores. In rural areas, farmers and labourers are still hurting because of demonetisation. The youth are upset that there are no fresh jobs. Various caste groups and communities are eager to assert their identity as separate from the Virat Hindutva Parivar. And there is 22 years of accumulated anti-incumbency.
For the Congress, in some other age and a different political milieu, Gujarat 2017 could have been like Paris in World War II — ready to be captured without firing a shot. But, the oxygen called Narendra Modi just won't allow the BJP to choke.
The equation between the Gujarati voter and Modi is more and more like a love that has turned into an addiction. The average voter is just not ready for the trauma of a breakup with Modi, however painful the relationship. If politics were cinema, Modi would have been to voters what Angelina Jolie is to Antonio Banderas in the Original Sin. Voters know that all promises have not been delivered, yet they can’t give up on Modi.
The biggest reason for this inability to look beyond Modi is the Gujarati mindset that sees Modi as its own creation. "In 2012, Gujaratis voted for Modi so that he may go on to become the prime minister. After nurturing his career, sending him to Delhi, seeing their dream of Gujaratis dominate Indian politics, voters can't think of harming him in his own backyard. It would be like destroying their own creation," says political analyst Shyam Parekh.
The other reason for Modi's apparent invincibility is his image of a protector of Hindus. Since the 2002 riots, the Hindus have started believing that the state is with them, and will always back them. This sense of security — though it is difficult to understand the insecurity of the majority — makes them repose their faith again and again in Modi. This sense of security, or the lack of it, is evident in what a Gujarati woman told Firstpost: "If Modi goes there will be a lot of mosques in Gujarat."
This is not to say that voters are not unhappy with Modi. Deep inside they are hurting because of his inability to deliver what he had promised. Ankita Oza, an Ahmedabad-based student of journalism, says this is the first time she has seen people at home and college ask serious questions about Modi. But, in the end, every answer leads to back to him as being the only one.
This confusion among voters is reflected in two things you would hear everywhere in Gujarat. One, the Congress is putting up a good fight, and this is its best chance in two decades to beat the BJP. And two, ironically, whatever the Congress may do, in the end, victory would be the BJP's. The reason: Modi hai na.
A week is a long time in politics. The first phase of polling is more than three weeks away. If the Congress continues to build on the gains it seems to have made in the last few months, there might still be a surprise in there for the BJP.
In 2012, with the "Modi for PM" buzz, the BJP had a ten percent vote share lead over the Congress. So, even a five percent swing away from the BJP could bring both the parties neck-and-neck. This time around there is enough evidence to suggest that the gap might narrow down because of the combined effects of anti-incumbency, downturn in businesses, lack of jobs and anger among Dalits and Patidars. According to a survey by Lokniti and CSDS, over the last two months, the Congress has reduced the difference in expected vote share from 30 points to just six percent.
But, the problem with the Congress is that the Modi campaign juggernaut has still not entered the fray. In a few days, he will hit the ground with close to 50 rallies in two weeks. He will go on an all-out attack against the Congress and appeal to Gujarati asmita (pride) to change the trajectory of the election.
Yes, the situation on the ground is indeed fluid. The BJP is indeed straining under the weight of voter fatigue. But the oxygen called Modi may just give the BJP a new lease of life.
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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 15:53:17 IST