What started as a walkover now seems to be acquiring the airs of a close competition in Gujarat, if you go by the changing nature of opinion polls days before the state goes to the polls. Congress, to even its own surprise, seems to be gaining ground, and the famed war machine of BJP is coming unstuck, they would have you believe.
Though, pollsters and pundits seem to forget one small subtext running through BJP’s campaign. The understated line often gets drowned out in the cacophony of BJP campaign based on Alauddin Khilji, Hafiz Saeed, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb: Apparently all genuine poll issues in 21st Century Gujarat. This new line is about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and comparing him with his performance as Gujarat chief minister for 17 years.
Gujaratis are being offered the liberty of choosing between Modi who rode to the high seat in New Delhi based on the brand equity he cultivated as chief minister, and the Modi who has been ruling India for past three years. The first remains a wildly popular figure here, almost mythical. The second evokes mixed feelings, but sundry grievances apart, the brand of Modi, who is promising a better tomorrow, has its own takers.
And either way you choose, the BJP gets to laugh its way to the bank. Look closer, you will see this prime minister 2017 versus chief minister 2012 narrative playing out on multiple levels. The prime minister it seems, is BJP's only bet in the state, and the party is confident.
In Surat’s textile market, 47-year-old Sanjay Jagnani, originally from Rajasthan, complains about Goods and Services Tax (GST). However, he doesn’t agree with Rahul Gandhi terming it ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ either. Jagnani said, “It’s a catchy phrase. But Rahul won’t come to power, how will he change GST?” Jagnani said it was “unfortunate” that GST was stuck for 16 years during the Congress rule in New Delhi.
“It was stuck because of Congress, now Modi has shown courage,” he said. The textile market in Surat was shut for about 20 days to protest against the GST. Jagnani asked if GST was to promote Inspector Raj: “What are they trying to prove by making us file three returns a month?” But he was quick to add that there can be no doubt about the prime minister’s integrity. “Modi has been in politics for 50 years. He has experience and wisdom. He is a good leader and was an effective chief minister. Just because we are raising an issue doesn’t mean we are against him,” he said.
When Modi visited Kutch on 27 November to launch the poll campaign, he talked about his own record as chief minister and how he changed the fortunes of Kutch, turning it into a tourist destination. Reminding people of the past, he said, in the old days, government officers preferred not to take up their assignment in Kutch because of water problems. “Congress did not allow Narmada water to come to Kutch. What if the Narmada waters had come to Kutch 30 years earlier? It would have made such a big difference,” he said. The BJP is confident of winning Gujarat with Modi campaigning aggressively. “Nobody knows Gujarat’s districts and its 182 constituencies better than him,” said a state BJP leader.
In Surat, in 2007, Dr Pooja Singh set up Nimaaya Women’s Centre for Health with her husband. During the past 10 years, the fertility clinic has ensured 7,000 safe deliveries. Her husband, Dr Prabhakar Singh, remembers the horror of the 1994 pneumonic plague. “Surat was in a pathetic state. My friends who have lived here for three decades are amazed at how things have turned around in the past 20 years. Today, Surat is one of the cleanest cities in India. We believe Modi as prime minister can change things. It took Gujarat 20 years to do it,” he said.
American politics is replete with instances of governors who went on to become president. Jimmy Carter became US president right after Georgia governorship. Similarly, Bill Clinton won the presidential election after serving as the governor of Arkansas for four terms. In India, HD Deve Gowda was first former chief minister who became prime minister. But Modi sold his governance model to the country in 2014 polls. On the one hand the Modi of 2017 is selling the dream of 2022, and on the other, he is reminding people of Gujarati pride and using history as a weapon. In Baroda Lok Sabha seat, which Modi won with a record margin in 2014 before vacating it for Varanasi, Naznee Kanchwala said she was initially ‘unhappy’ that Modi chose Uttar Pradesh over Gujarat, but she later felt ‘it is for the larger good’.
Fyona Dias, a student of Baroda’s prestigious MS University, said, “We have seen him as chief minister. We have seen him work. Why should we bother to find an alternative?” Standing next to her is Abhivyakti, a student of political science, who sees Hardik Patel as a “fresh face” who is trying to ‘break BJP’s hegemony’. Patel’s rallies have been drawing massive crowds, making the BJP anxious about Patidar votes. On Sunday, the 24-year-old leader addressed around 50,000 people in Surat, asking them to “teach BJP a lesson”. This came after a series of roadshows across constituencies where Patels are a sizeable vote bank. It has been three-and-a-half years since Modi moved to New Delhi, but Gujarat is yet to find a new leader. For most Gujaratis, Modi is the synonym for leader.
Explaining this phenomena, political analyst Neerja Chowdhury said, “There is unhappiness on the ground against the BJP, but not Narendra Modi. The Congress doesn’t have the organisational muscle to convert this unhappiness into votes. They don’t have the face. Even though people may want change, the obstacle in the way of change is the persona and stature of Modi.” And Modi is incomplete without Amit Shah, the man who knows the art of converting the prime minister's popularity into votes. Shah, who catapulted brand Modi and has a unique relationship with the prime minister, has been camping in Gujarat for around three months, ensuring that anti-incumbency doesn’t hurt the party’s prospects.
But such dependence on Modi completely undermines the autonomy of his successors: Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani. This is one of the reasons why Rajkot farmer Rajesh Patel is looking for an alternative in the Congress. “BJP removed Keshubhai Patel and made Modi the chief minister. After Modi, it removed Anandiben Patel and installed Vijay Rupani. BJP doesn’t care for Patels,” said Patel. The capital of Saurashtra, Rajkot has long been a bastion of Hindutva politics. In 2002, Narendra Modi contested his first election from Rajkot West.
Senior journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has authored a Modi biography, said, “Modi’s hypnotic effect is waning and he has to recast it.” He said for the first time, Modi was being questioned. “Gujarat 2017 is a much keener battle than 2012 or 2014,” Mukhopadhyay added. Politics is seen best through the lens of time. Modi today, is reminding Gujarat of his tenure as chief minister, while recounting the ‘benefits’ of tough decisions such as GST and demonetisation he took as prime minister. When we look at the past through the lens of present, the results are often surprising.
Marya Shakil is political editor of CNNNews18. This article first appeared on www.News18.com
Updated Date: Dec 06, 2017 06:43 AM