Gujarat polls: Anger against BJP has not yet boiled over, Congress needs to expand its reach
The anger simmering against BJP under the surface in Gujarat has not yet boiled over, tipping over the point of no return.
In front of a house in Kharaghoda town on the tip of the Rann of Kutch, two young girls are drawing lines on the sand. A colleague asks them if they have heard of Rahul Gandhi. When they shrug their shoulders, he asks if they have heard of Narendra Modi. Both respond in unison: Pratham vada pradhan.
Yes, not just the Prime Minister of India, but the pratham (first) prime minister of India, almost in consonance with the belief among his supporters that there has never been anybody like Modi, and, perhaps never will be. In many other places, people echo this reverence for the prime minister. "He is ours. He is our Narendra Bhai," is the common refrain.
Given the prime minister's reverential status, it could have been safely assumed that the election in Gujarat would be a cakewalk for the BJP. Logically, the Gujarati voter, after having realised his dream of sending their very own Narendra Bhai to Delhi to become the 'pratham vada pradhan', would not do anything to harm the prime minister. Unfortunately for Modi, the follower is a bit upset with the deity.
Ambu Patel, the father of the girls who think Modi is India's first prime minister, argues that many voters are hurt by what they believe is the government's "arrogance." "Many decisions taken by the state and central government have hurt the Gujaratis. The Patidars are angry because of the firing on their youth during the reservation stir of 2015; traders are upset because of the complicated GST; owners of small and medium enterprises are unhappy because of the impact of demonetisation, youngsters are complaining of lack of jobs," he says. The net result, argues Patel, is that they want to send the BJP a lesson: Don't take us for granted.
Patel's thoughts are echoed in many places. At a restaurant on the Mehsana bypass, its owner — who doesn't want to be identified — argues Modi made a mistake by attacking businesses through demonetisation. "Politicians and political parties never reveal where they get their money from. Woh apna kama aur khaa rahe hain (They are making their money). Why should they interfere in what we earn and eat?" he asks. Then he rolls out a litany of woes, its gist being the business has taken a huge hit and income has fallen drastically.
An IIM-Ahmedabad student whom I have known as a die hard supporter of the Modi government sums up the mood among government's critics. He says the Modi sarkar has developed an "ego". It needs to be punctured so that when it returns in 2019, it is less arrogant and autocratic, and more amenable to suggestions, advice and ready to listen to the voices on the ground.
This desire to bring the hubris of the government a few notches lower is the principle reason that these days, voters are turning up in large numbers to listen to anybody who has something to say against the government. In this winter of discontent, Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani, Alpesh Thakore and even Rahul Gandhi are drawing huge crowds. And, significantly, those who turn up at their rallies, are willing to listen to them.
The good news for the BJP is that the voter, is at the moment, just upset with it. The anger simmering under the surface has not yet boiled over, tipping over the point of no return. It has not yet turned into hatred, something that we had witnessed in the dying years of UPA-2 and before that in 1988-89 against the erstwhile Rajiv Gandhi government. So, if the BJP reaches out to sulking voters, coddles them with kind words, explanations and apologies, shows some signs of humility, they may be won over again.
The other advantage the BJP has is that voters continue to believe in the adage, and this shouldn't be taken literally, that a known devil is better than an unknown deity. Since the Congress has been out of power for 22 years, since voters are not familiar with its leaders, since they don't know who would lead the government if the Congress wins, and since Rahul Gandhi is still untested as an administrator, they may finally find refuge in the familiarity with the BJP.
Also, anger in itself is useless unless converted into votes. For the BJP to lose, the Congress needs to ensure that every upset voter gets to reach the polling booth. But, unlike the BJP, whose cadres have access to every individual, knows their voting history and preferences, the Congress has no presence on the ground. So, on the day it really matters, the Congress may get the rude shock of realising that anti-incumbency could not be converted into votes because of lack of resources and eye contact with voters.
This lack of confidence in the Congress' ability to mobilise voters has given rise to an interesting dichotomy: People believe the BJP needs a wrap on the knuckles, they feel that the Congress has gained momentum, but they do not believe the BJP can be defeated.
This handicap could partly be overcome by the alliance with groups led by Dalit activist Jignesh Mewani, Patidar poster boy Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakore. These three young turks have successfully organised political rallies. But they do not have the experience of mobilising voters. Also, the extent of their influence and following is still unknown.
Only if this triumvirate works like a perfect poll machine with the Congress to convert the inchoate anger into votes will the girls in Kharaghoda hear of Rahul Gandhi.
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