Gujarat Polls: In Narendra Modi bastion, Rahul Gandhi is being termed as champion merely for showing up

Gujarat has always been a riddle for those who tend to apply conventional academic or intellectual tools to unravel electoral mysteries, especially since 2002 and the emergence of Narendra Modi. But when confusion gets confounded, such analysts invent subterfuge to cover up their failures.

Nothing illustrates this dilemma as starkly as the projection of the upcoming Assembly election in Gujarat as a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi battle. And ironically, some conventional political analysts — pundits, as Modi loves to describe them — see in this election Rahul's emergence as a formidable politician in his own right.

There is nothing wrong if any person, let alone a politician, evolves in due course of time by dint of his hard work. And equally, one cannot grudge that a section of analysts find Rahul growing into a mature politician. These are subjective opinions which can be contested but have to be respected.

But that narrative is not limited just to Rahul's newfound mojo, as yet unproven. It is being amplified by the national media, that is eager to prop up an alternative to Modi, as a one-on-one Rahul versus Modi fight, with the challenger being drummed up as champion merely for showing up for the bout.

Primarily fed on an overdose of conventional caste politics of North India for decades, the national media tends to see Gujarat through the same prism. But it's doggedly refusing to acknowledge two principal truths: One, Modi has just blown up even Uttar Pradesh's set-in-stone caste politics to smithereens; and two, Modi, before he became the tallest Indian leader of recent decades, essentially built his base as the strongest regional leader in India.

 Gujarat Polls: In Narendra Modi bastion, Rahul Gandhi is being termed as champion merely for showing up

Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

Now, when this tallest and strongest regional leader goes to his home state and seeks support for his party, it would take a great degree of intellectual gymnastics to argue that people will not respond to him.

If Modi is known for his oratory, where else would it be more persuasive than in his mother-tongue?

Let us jog our memory. Just before the 2002 Assembly elections, he had launched 'Gujarat Gaurav Yatra' across the state though the project was disapproved by the BJP's top leadership of the time. This political endeavour was frowned upon as it came in the wake of the post-Godhra riots. But Modi stuck to his guns, completed his yatra campaign with a chutzpah rarely seen in a politician passing through troubled times. Remember, Modi was then a fledgling leader within the BJP, overshadowed by the presence of taller leaders, topped by the Vajpayee-Advani duo.

But those who covered the 2002 Assembly elections would testify that Modi won it on his own. Given the background of the riots, the victory was dismissed as a result of communal polarisation. But was that the case? Gujarat had a long history of riots. For example, riots in the 1980s, that seeded a deep angst in society. But the BJP was just a marginal political force right up till 1995. In 2002, Modi, though belonging to a caste with miniscule representation, emerged as someone who can rid society of this malaise.

Modi's deep understanding of the Gujarati society helped him channelise this simmering social discontent into a positive movement about 'Gujarati asmita (pride)'. He launched various programmes and events that focused only on Gujarat. Unlike in the Hindi heartland — particularly Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was pushed to the margins of electoral politics during that time — Modi's strategy found resonance in Gujarat.

There is an anecdotal story that Modi was advised by one of his Singaporean friends to "focus on Gujarat" and build his base. His frequent refrain of "working for five crore Gujaratis" was germane to his overall political strategy.

But that is only one side of the story. He worked on various aspects. For instance, till 2007, he launched a vigorous campaign to turn around the state's public sector enterprises, particularly the state electricity board, and tried to devise schemes to ensure water supply in drought-prone Saurashtra and Kutch regions. Those who have visited the state before 2007 would testify that in these two regions, there used to be "water mafias" whose tankers used to ply on streets of cities like Rajkot. Modi took tough decisions like reforming and restructuring the electricity board.

At the same time, he also faced a revolt from within, as Keshubhai Patel, his predecessor and the tallest Patel leader in the state at the time, along with some disgruntled BJP leaders, stealthily supported the Congress and tried to subvert Modi's prospects.

Those who think Patels are currently rising in revolt for the first time would find that the ongoing Patidar agitation is far more feeble compared to the past rebellion. The apparent reason was the fear among powerful Patidars who found power slipping away from their grip. At the same time, Modi's electricity reforms led to the arrest of a large number of farmers who refused to pay electricity bills. Even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmers' wing of the RSS, had come out on the streets against the chief minister then. And yet, none of it mattered in the 2007 Assembly election results.

Compared with the widespread social unrest caused by power reforms before the 2007 Assembly elections, troubles over GST are on a much smaller scale, and limited only to a few pockets.

Modi not only remained unfazed but also expanded his social base by co-opting social groups that were politically marginalised but numerically strong. For instance, the Koli caste (to which President Ram Nath Kovind belongs) and tribals were roped in by giving them a share of political power. In caste terms, the 2007 Assembly elections had found Modi ranged against all powerful castes of Gujarat — Kshatriya and Patel, not to mention Muslims — if one goes by conventional wisdom. But the result proved all those analyses wrong, as Modi successfully reached out to larger sections of society.

Perhaps the most predictable election for Modi was in 2012, when he had already emerged as the main challenger at the national level and had assumed for himself the numero uno position in his own party on account of his popular appeal. By that time he had become unstoppable.

Now let us examine what has changed in 2017. The logic that his absence in the state would make a big difference is quite akin to saying that people of Gujarat would love Modi more as chief minister than as prime minister. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani is a dyed-in-the-wool politician with a fairly untarnished image, and is rooted to the ground in his state over the last four decades. Unlike Modi, he does not evoke extreme emotions and that is his strength.

But look at the crutches on which the Congress has been relying. It would be rather stupid to compare Hardik Patel with Keshubhai. Dalits are too fragmented to be represented by a leader like Jignesh Mevani. Since 2007, the BJP had made significant inroads into social segments like Dalits and tribals. Gujarat being one of states with a high tribal population, the BJP's organisational expansion through the RSS network has made the tribal constituency an impregnable bastion.

In Gujarat's context, the plain and simple caste arithmetic, as is normally applied in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, does not work. The state has found its political and social equilibrium after a great deal of turmoil in the 1980s.

In a society driven by business and entrepreneurial impulses, such a situation can be disturbed only if there is a promise of a better tomorrow. Do they think Rahul is a beacon of such hope? Those entertaining such an illusion will never be able to comprehend Gujarat's puzzle.

I'll put my money on Modi and the BJP winning this election hands down.

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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2017 15:34:48 IST