Gujarat poll results 2017: The tired old 'why Narendra Modi can’t win this time' narrative is set to bomb again

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 15 December. It is being republished in light of the results of the Gujarat Assembly election that handed the BJP victory.

The exit polls are out. With most predicting a comfortable victory for Narendra Modi, this election too seems to have followed an old, familiar script: "The why Modi cannot win this time" script.

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". The same can be said of Assembly elections in Gujarat — but with a crucial twist: Elections in Gujarat are made to look like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but eventually, it transpires that there was no riddle at all.

They have been following the same script. When the campaign begins, the outcome looks utterly unpredictable. As the electioneering progresses, as Modi gets aggressive, his critics shore up expectations of something incredible round the corner. Commentators discover a variety of factors that will ensure the BJP’s loss. As counting begins, it’s time for, not climax, but anti-climax. Within no time, everybody realises, of course, this is what was going to happen in any case. Gujarat elections, in short, begin and also proceed like an unputdownable whodunnit thriller, but end like a good old-fashioned romance. Frederick Forsyth and Jane Austen in one volume.

As a journalist, I have covered the Gujarat elections since 2002, when polling took place amid unusually high polarisation in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning tragedy and the ensuing communal riots. It was the first time Modi was leading BJP to elections. When he was brought in the previous year to arrest the sagging popularity of the party, he had famously said that he would have to work like he was playing one-day international cricket and not a test match. Would he deliver? Would Gujarat accept Modi’s brand of politics, with 'Gaurav Yatras' in every district, appeal to Hindu pride? Would his sharp personality and oratory, well-orchestrated campaigning and other unorthodox ways, charm voters? The media and analysts grappled with these questions quite intently. Many had doubts.

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

When the election results came, they all invented their own logic to become post facto wiser. They said Modi had merely exploited the communal divide, conveniently ignoring the fact that the state has been living with the divide at least since the series of riots in the 1980s, if not the 1969 riots, and none of them gave the party 127 seats until 2002. Some branded the phenomenon as 'Moditva' that replaced Hindutva. Implicit in the coinage of this word was the view that Modi had developed his own variant of Hindutva distinct from the Sangh Parivar's Hindutva.

Obviously, this postulation sounded journalistically interesting to attract readers but was wide off the mark from ground realities.

Modi, a former RSS pracharak, was too deeply groomed in the values of the Sangh to venture a deviation. In fact, he was effectively implementing the Hindutva vision within the parameters outlined in the Constitution. Of course, he was quite aware of his obligations and duties after the Godhra and post-Godhara episodes. That was precisely why, after the 2002 Assembly elections, he focused extensively on rebuilding the state BJP’s organisational structure and honing it into an election-fighting machine — and at the same time, he showed his unflinching commitment to the development of Gujarat, making vikas his trademark. By the time he left it in 2014, he had transformed the state, politically, economically and socially.

In the 2007 Assembly elections, it was the same script again. A section of media and commentators nurtured hopes of the high-drama election ending in their preferred outcome. They again fished out a variety of reasons why Modi was losing. For example, anti-incumbency, a factor that has been recycled every time. For example, in one of his tough decisions, he had undertaken power sector reforms, entailing tariff hikes for farmers too. Peasants were on the warpath with Patels or Patidars forming the vanguard. Modi had become over-confident and farmers were going to teach him a lesson now, the commentariat gleefully reasoned.

When the campaigning was at its peak, I travelled across Saurashtra and south Gujarat and found a large section of Patidars, tribals and scheduled castes alienated from BJP’s fold. I did feel BJP would lose this election. But something else was going on below the surface. Bank on a politician to read such subtle signs. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who was campaigning for the lone JD (U) candidate, Chhotubhai Vasava, in Jhagadiya in south-central Gujarat, remarked candidly: “I don’t see any reason for Modi to lose. When my chopper landed here, I was amazed to see the degree of development work he had accomplished. If he loses, there will not be any incentive for a chief minister to bother with developmental work.”

Once the results came, everybody nonchalantly said, oh, Modi was winning anyway. Those who had predicted a Congress win found a facile explanation. The then Congress president Sonia Gandhi had deployed the epithet of "maut ka saudagar (merchant of death)" for Modi, in reference to the police encounter killings of alleged terrorists in the state, especially that of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. Modi, with his far better connect with the masses, pounced on this opportunity and, like in countless other instances, turned the tables on the Congress. Political analysts, who had propounded the theory that the Congress party, firmly ensconced at the Centre, was giving a tough fight, heaved a sigh of relief and quickly hung Sonia Gandhi out to dry. Congress was winning, but lost because of Sonia’s comment that once again took the state back to communal polarisation.

It now seems that it is perhaps this tendency of the commentariat — finding reasons why Modi can’t win this time — is what makes a Gujarat election a riddle and a mystery and an enigma till the votes are counted. And once the votes are counted, it turns out there was no riddle in the first place. Election results in 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2014 have demonstrated this adequately. Another common thread running across all Assembly elections since 2002 (and 2014) is that the debate in each of them is over Modi. Even in 2017 when he is no longer the chief minister. Implicit in it is the failure of the Opposition to offer a counter-narrative.

That Modi has been winning elections on account of his distinctly different and efficient governance is something a section of analysts and intellectuals, afflicted by an incurable case of political myopia, refuse to accept. "Modi has not done anything great and he has only been following in the footsteps of his predecessors. In any case, Gujarat has always been a development-oriented state" is the refrain of a group of intellectuals whose anti-Modi stance has turned into a vocation.

Of course, Modi, hemmed in by adversaries who resort to every trick of the trade to run him down, has devised his own innovative ways of counterattacks. He does not hesitate to stoop low in order to conquer. He knows that everything is fair in war and elections, and the only count that matters is the vote count. Hence, his reference to Pakistan is a clever camouflage to polarise the electorate. Of course, there is nothing objectionable in his remarks, as he is perfectly within his rights to talk about a country that is perceived to be an enemy.

At the same time, he is conscious of the fact that there is a desperate attempt by his adversaries to divide Hindus on caste lines. The Congress has propped many caste groups and resorted to so-called soft Hindutva to forge a social coalition that can pose a challenge to Modi. In this setting, it would be rather absurd to find fault with Modi's formulations, while endorsing Rahul Gandhi’s indiscretions as legitimate campaign tactics. It’s another blindspot of the political commentariat: Division on basis of religion is dangerous and deplorable, but division on castes is clever politics.

The Gujarat election has become a high-stakes gamble for Rahul as he takes over as the party president days before the poll verdict. For Modi, much is at stake as the outcome can determine his performance for the rest of his tenure till 2019. Given that, it is a momentous election for the rest of us too.

Every election comes with its own context, and this time there are more complications at play than the previous three. I sought to capture them in dispatches from the ground (read here). I did not see or feel the ground shifting under Modi’s feet. That is what the exit polls also seem to suggest. Needless to say, it is rather naïve to predict election results on the basis of a miniscule sample of voters with whom I interacted. It would be better to read the dispatches like a travelogue that invariably contains a degree of subjectivity despite my best efforts to resist it.

This essay appears in the forthcoming issue of Governance Now

Click here for detailed coverage of Gujarat Assembly Election 2017


Updated Date: Dec 18, 2017 14:53 PM

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