Beneath Narendra Modi's one-liners and invoking 'Gujarati asmita' lies unease over repercussions of GST
Narendra Modi's rallies reveal a determination to frame the political debate on his own terms instead of responding to the Opposition narrative, a tacit admission that BJP is feeling queasy about the political repercussions of GST
Narendra Modi's rallies on Day 1 of his two-day Gujarat campaign blitzkrieg threw up some interesting pointers about the mood in BJP's camp. A close scrutiny of his speeches — at Bhuj for instance, his first pit stop — reveals a determination to frame the political debate on his own terms instead of responding to the Opposition narrative. Inherent in this strategy is a tacit admission that BJP is feeling a little queasy about the political repercussions of GST.
This isn't apparent on the surface, however. The question central to the Gujarat Assembly poll debate isn't whether BJP will win, but whether it will be able to meet its stated target of 150 seats.
Rahul Gandhi's blistering attack on Modi has been noted, Congress' tie-ups with dissident caste groups and the Patidar movement has been acknowledged, and Rahul's new-found confidence on the campaign trail has generated some interest in certain sections of the media. Yet, the overwhelming narrative remains that of a BJP win, as explained on DailyO, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and The Hindu.
But political pundits have been careful in their calculation of GST blues upsetting the Modi applecart. This is a little curious. It is undeniable that the tax reform has introduced a huge amount of discord in the economy and traders have been at the receiving end of it. But ground reports from Gujarat suggest that BJP workers and local-level leaders are facing hostility from communities that have been long and steadfast supporters of the party.
Given the dominance of trading communities in Gujarat, BJP's goal of 150 seats should have appeared a little far-fetched. That it hasn't been so has a lot do with what happened earlier in the year during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Polls in Uttar Pradesh changed the political lexicon of India in a curious way. The Opposition, and even the media, were reasonably certain that Modi will suffer a demonetisation backlash. When results emerged overwhelmingly in BJP's favour, the media not only faced a crisis of credibility, its self-confidence was also bitterly shaken. It appeared that in its laser focus on caste and sub-caste groups, the media had miserably failed to gauge the groundswell of support in Modi's favour.
Therefore, this time, despite evidence on the ground of an anti-incumbency mood, pollsters and media pundits have been playing it a little cautious.
It was interesting, therefore, to note the approach taken by Modi on Monday:
During his speeches in Bhuj and Rajkot, the prime minister refused to pick up the topic of GST until towards the very end, instead focusing on familiar tropes of development, 'Gujarati asmita' and his "son of the soil" pitch. In his exclusive focus on the past to build a narrative of the present, Modi's attempt was clear. He was trying to tap into the traditional Gujarati antipathy towards Congress to deny Rahul Gandhi a chance to exploit any GST-induced resentment.
In his invocation of Congress' "step-motherly" attitude towards Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, insistence that water-starved Kutch could have got Narmada water at least 30 years ago had the Congress been a little more serious about the project, his achievements as three-time chief minister of Gujarat, rehabilitation and rebuilding of Kutch from scratch after the devastating 2001 earthquake — the effort was to show himself as the maker of modern Gujarat.
Modi threw in anecdotes of government employees being scared of being transferred to Kutch due to water scarcity, workers forced to migrate out of the district, cattle-herders forced to look elsewhere for food and water until he started the drip irrigation system that revolutionised the area and turned arid Kutch green and Rann of Kutch became a tourist attraction. This was constructed with Congress' attitude towards Gujarat, which Modi framed within the parameters of history by bringing in references to 'Mahagujarat' movement in 1956, when protesting youth were fired upon. Modi tried to constantly refresh public memory over Congress' role in the state to meet the challenges of the present.
Rahul Gandhi has mocked, ridiculed and ripped into Modi over the "twin blows" of demonetisation and GST. Modi sought to turn it around into a personal battle between Gujaratis and Congress, by first identifying himself as the "son of the soil" — an "embodiment of Gujarat" — and from there, claiming that insulting him is akin to insulting Gujaratis. Congress will be taught a severe lesson for daring to do so, he thundered.
In Rajkot, he added the "humble background" imagery into his attack and tried to capitalise on the recent Youth Congress meme that ridiculed his past as a tea-seller. "I'd rather sell tea than sell the country," quipped Modi. The one-liner virtually wrote itself the moment Congress had committed the gaffe.
It was also fascinating to note Modi's attempt to portray Congress as an "anti-national" organisation by reminding the crowd that Rahul Gandhi had questioned the veracity of surgical strikes and met with the Chinese ambassador in the middle of the Doka La standoff.
The reference to GST — the timing of it and the framing of the debate — was the most interesting takeaway. It indicated that even though the media might be iffy in drawing a causal relationship between BJP's electoral fortunes and the tax reform, Modi is more cautious. He suggested Congress' hypocrisy in the way the party representatives had behaved inside the GST council (where all provisions were discussed and agreed upon) and outside it. This signified Modi's willingness to make Congress a party to the collateral damage caused by the reform.
He also reminded the crowd that his government has been responsive to criticism, sensitive and amenable to changes — while defying Congress barbs as an attempt to insult Gujarati asmita.
Read between the lines. The battle for Gujarat isn't a foregone conclusion.
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