Ahmedabad: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rhetoric linking Pakistan to the Congress notwithstanding, there was a lot less communal polarisation on the ground in this Gujarat election than in earlier iterations. Despite the best efforts of Modi and the BJP, neither Hindutva nor vikas could become mainstream campaign issues for voters this time. Multiple factors led to this election being different.
Firstly, Modi's elevation from chief minister to prime minister has taken Gujarat’s political discourse beyond the 2002 communal violence. As long as Modi was chief minister, the Opposition Congress and the media used to keep 2002 as the central prism through which to look at him. Modi himself worked hard to change his image from one linked to riots to one of a man who created a new model of development. But with cases over riots and alleged fake encounters keeping Modi's Hindutva image alive, election discourse centred around Hindutva.
Modi remains the most popular person in Gujarat, but he’s no longer the polarising figure of yore. He is instead a prime minister facing great expectations.
2017 is not 2002
The political discourse on the ground was occupied with other issues. If the 2002 election was about the riots, 2007 about vikas and 2012 about making Modi prime minister, the 2017 election agenda was not set by Modi or the BJP. Even if the BJP wins comfortably, it lost the election narrative to the Patidar agitation, agrarian distress, GST troubles and so on. Caste may not be as salient here as in many other states, but this election was more about caste than Hindu consolidation.
With the economy hitting a bad patch, farmers complained of low prices for their produce and traders just about adjusting to the GST shock, the BJP was unable to make a strong pitch for vikas either. Regardless, urban Gujarati voters and many even in villages still credit Modi and the BJP as having turned the state around in two decades. Just that, at the level of political discourse on the ground, the BJP was unable to make it a talking point among voters.
The Patidar agitation particularly hit Hindutva discourse hard as it showed a fault line in the 'Hindu consolidation' project. Led by Hardik Patel, Patidars damaged Hindutva by making Patidars and reservations a bigger talking point than Hindutva. When asked who was winning the election, many voters said they expected the BJP to win but that the Patidar factor had brought the Congress into a close contest.
The disenchantment of at least a section of Patidar youths with the BJP has hit the Hindutva discourse for another reason. Patels are at the cutting edge of Hindutva politics in Gujarat. If the loss of Patel support for the BJP becomes a long-term phenomenon in Gujarat, the project of Hindu consolidation could be long-term as well.
The other pole of polarisation
The Congress played its part well to prevent Hindu-Muslim polarisation. The party gave five tickets to Muslims, as opposed to six last time, but has shied away from making noise about Muslim voters or issues. Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits helped counter the image of the Congress as an anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim party. Congress sources say the party declined to make Rahul visit dargahs.
Key to this was keeping Ahmed Patel contained in Delhi. His influence on ticket distribution and the party’s over-all strategy has also declined, while Rahul led from the front. This made the 2017 election less about Narendra Modi versus 'Ahmed Mian' and more about Rahul coming into his own.
The BJP tried its best to revive Ahmed’s sagging career in Gujarat; a false poster of Ahmed with Rahul proclaiming the former would be chief minister should the Congress win Gujarat mysteriously sprung up days before the first phase of polling. It also helped that the liberal intelligentsia and the NGO-Left from Delhi and Ahmedabad had causes other than Juhapura to worry about, such as helping Jignesh Mevani alienate Hindu voters in his constituency.
This is not to say that Gujarat became secular overnight. The fear that Muslims would get empowered with a Congress victory still prevents many from voting for the Congress. While Rahul's temple visits silenced some of this discourse, it would have been fully neutralised if the Congress had a chief ministerial candidate.
Hindu identity remains a big factor, especially for urban voters, but this election showed Hindutva has diminishing returns unless it is accompanied by vikas.
This is what explains Modi's rather extreme comments linking the Congress with Pakistan, referring to Rahul's succession as "Aurangzeb raj" and naming nondescript Congress politicians from Kashmir to bring Muslims into the discourse.
The final truth of an election is the winner. If the BJP does poorly, the failure of the Hindutva trick will be widely hailed, and it will be incorrectly said by Left-liberal commentators that secularism has won. It’s not secularism, it’s the sidestepping of Hindutva with other issues. If the BJP comfortably wins this election, as is likely, it will be said that the prime minister’s Pakistan/Muslims discourse saved the day. The truth of the ground, however, is that voters were not talking about this. They were talking about Patidars, vikas, GST, economy, irrigation, education and so on.
If the BJP wins, it could be because of OBC consolidation, its tribal outreach, Modi’s personal popularity, the fact that a fellow Gujarati is prime minister and can’t be let down, or because the BJP has a ground machinery far more powerful than the Congress.
It won’t be because of Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2017 10:08 AM