Narendra Modi re-enacts role of Gujarat caretaker: Does Congress have power to fight PM's 'I-am-Gujarat' pitch?

In July this year, Congress leader Ashok Gehlot tried to address a gathering of textile traders in Surat demanding exemption from GST. To his surprise and embarrassment, he was not only greeted by slogans of "Modi, Modi" but also forced to beat a hasty retreat.

This episode needs a bit of deconstruction in the context of the impending elections in Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again decided to re-enact a role who just can't step out of: the chief minister of the state.

Gujarat is a hub of traders, who — based on anecdotal evidence, the mood on the ground and the inchoate nervousness within the BJP — are upset with the government. The government's disastrous demonetisation gambit, followed by the decision to implement GST, has hurt their businesses. Political logic, common sense and survival instincts suggest they should be eager to punish a government that has made their lives difficult.

Yet, when a team of Congress leaders tried to talk to them, they chased them away, reiterating their faith in the prime minister.

This, essentially, sums up the mood in Gujarat. Yes, people are upset, anger is brewing among traders, Dalits and Patidars. But, they do not expect the Congress to assuage them, find a solution. They are looking only at Modi to listen to their grievances, find a solution. Modi, for them, is the final court of appeal whose attention they are trying to seek.

Modi, being the shrewd politicians he is, understands this.

Narendra Modi re-enacts role of Gujarat caretaker: Does Congress have power to fight PMs I-am-Gujarat pitch?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar on Monday. Reuters

So, he has virtually turned the clock back, morphing into the chief minister of Gujarat, ready to work for the people who trusted him for over a decade. As The Indian Express pointed out on Monday, he is fighting for a fourth term in the state.

In his speech on the final day of the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra at Gandhinagar on Monday, Modi unrolled his "I am the problem, I am the solution," strategy when he tried to mollycoddle the Gujaratis through a series of sops and clever talk, the foundation of which was his characteristic semi-admission of the GST being a source of pain for markets for which the Congress was equally to be blamed.

"All political parties of this country, including Congress, and the central government take collective decisions on GST. Parliament does not take a decision on GST, governments of all political parties do that. It includes Congress governments in Punjab and Meghalaya. Central government forms only the 30th part of the entire council that takes decisions on GST. So, Congress does not have the right to spread lies on GST because they are partners in the decisions on GST." This is, perhaps, the closest you will see Modi accept a mistake.

He followed this up by saying his government would try to sort out some of the problems unleashed by the GST roll-out, a characteristic signal that he was ready to look at some of the mess his government has created by alienating traders.

Apart from trying to sell himself as the interpreter and healer of maladies, Modi, is back again to his favourite theme — that of Gujarati pride. Correcting historical grievances, imagined and real, has for some reason become a feverish desire among a large section of voters. This obsession with avenging perceived slights from the past mostly to others has often made the electorate forget their own present and future, often to the advantage of the BJP. So, Modi doesn't miss any opportunity to incite this latent desire of voters to find someone else responsible for their current plight and problems.

So, he went dagger and swords at the Congress, blaming it for hating Gujarat and its people. (Another standard spiel that unspools in every state before elections). He blamed the Congress for ignoring the state's development and humiliating its leaders. He slammed the Congress for conspiring against every stalwart from Gujarat, including, of course, himself. The high point of his rhetoric being the allegation of spreading "canards" about Morarji Desai's favourite drink. (Incidentally, Desai himself was quite blase about his favourite morning cuppa, not shy even to talk about it in front of even the Americans).

Does the Congress have the firepower to counter Modi's "I am Gujarat" and "Fight for your asmita" pitch that he is watering for the elections? At the moment, it is gasping for answers.

The problem with the Congress is that while Modi is roaring and punching in his corner, the Congress doesn't have anybody to take him in the Gujarat ring. Though Rahul Gandhi is sparring with him, in the absence of a local heavyweight, the fight appears cruelly one-sided. A sort of Floyd Mayweather vs some faceless amateur. Something as farcical as a Gehlot vs Modi.

You don't need a betting man to know who the Gujaratis would put their money on, even if they have less of it because of demonetisation and GST.

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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 15:40:37 IST

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