If elections are about perception, then the BJP won Gujarat even before Rahul Gandhi launched his extensive campaign in the state. In the last few months, much has been made about his aggressive campaigning in the state. About the Patidars and Hardik Patel’s electoral speeches. About GST and the impact, it has on the traders in Surat and in the business community.
Commentators sitting in Delhi talk about Modi-Shah getting the jitters over the prospect of losing Gujarat. Much of it could be true if Gujarat were just any other state in the country, its political history not as deeply polarised and vulnerable as that witnessed over the last two decades.
I have reported from Gujarat for over a decade, written a book on it, tried to understand the psyche of those who ruled the state from its ministers, bureaucrats to the Gujarati on the street. As I write this, one major opinion poll has predicted a neck-and-neck fight. I do not agree, but yes, the Indian electorate is an unpredictable entity.
In the meantime, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has helped us explain why the BJP will lead in Gujarat. He made a statement yesterday: “BJP has always been seen as a pro-Hindutva party, so if an original is available, why one would prefer a clone?”
Neither Arun Jaitley nor any of his party leaders including the Prime Minister have displayed any ambiguity over their Hindutva credentials especially in Gujarat. It is a state where the former CM and now PM has made the most polarising statements, drawing massive support from the crowd. In 2007, the election that followed the 2002 Gujarat carnage, Modi was to talk of development. He began his election campaign with a speech (where I was present) asking the crowd “Sohrabuddin, What would you want me to do with a man like him?” The audience responded in unison, “Kill him”. Modi was playing to the gallery then, he is playing to the gallery today.
This year, Modi brings in “Aurangzeb” as the election closes in, his colleague from Uttar Pradesh has been providing flawed narratives on the Taj Mahal. Sitting in Delhi, some of us may outrage over the brazen bigotry but back in Gujarat, the sentiment has been explicitly conveyed, just like the crafty slogans in 2014 that referred to the Congress as the “Delhi sultanate”. Another news report this morning talks of the BJP using posters in Gujarat hardly concealing its agenda.
The poster has two warring factions; HAJ (Hardik, Alpesh, and Jignesh) and RAM (Rupani, Amit Shah, and Modi). This does not need an explainer.
For the Gujarati who has been voting for the BJP, or rather Modi, he is the man who emblazoned Gujarati Asmita by giving Gujarat not just the Prime Minister but also the BJP president.
A couple of months ago, I spoke to a diamond trader on a dharna in Surat against the GST. He was upset with the Modi regime for hitting at his livelihood. So your anger will reflect in the upcoming poll, I asked. “Na ben, jarurat pade toh ghar bhej denge usko election jitaane ke liye” ( If need be, we will sell our belongings to help him win).
To the aspirational Gujarati, Modi may not have offered much since he took over as the Prime Minister. But as the CM, he successfully sold the idea of putting Gujarat on the world map with the much-hyped Vibrant Gujarat summit seeking investments and hosting global investors. A week-long PR affair worked well for the Gujarati who took pride in being the most advanced state in the country. That most of the MoUs signed at the summit never materialized was another story. But Modi had sold the global dream to the Gujarati youth much like the Madison Square song and dance he sold to the youth across the country.
Critics may mock him, create memes on social media about GST being reduced on khakhra ahead of the election, but all this only reinforces Gujarati faith in their man in Delhi.
Congress (nearly) President Rahul Gandhi has rightly said that Modi markets himself well. But the truth is Modi was provided with the marketplace wide open, ceded by a lackluster, uninspiring Congress leadership in both Gujarat and in Delhi.
And then Hardik Patel. Yes, he is a much-needed dissenting voice after a long time in the history of Gujarat and Patidar politics. The resentment of the Patidars found a voice in the 24-year-old, but his potential impact on the Gujarat election may have been blunted by the perception created about him. An alleged sex CD and a video of his alleged secret meeting in a hotel with Rahul Gandhi him being seen as the man who betrayed Gujarat and the Patidar cause for personal gains. Remember Sanjay Joshi, one of Modi’s staunch rivals from the RSS in Gujarat? A sex CD later, Joshi has been unable to re-launch himself within the party or the Sangh.
Hardik may still draw crowds but the Modi-Shah duo has stymied his popularity. As for the Congress, six months of hard-core campaigning by Rahul Gandhi will not be enough to undo the perception its leaders have created about the party in the state. The Congress has been comatose for the last 15 years with no semblance of leadership. A last-minute dash of rallies and Hindutva which involves Rahul Gandhi visiting every possible temple in the state with the declaration that he is a janeu-dhari Brahmin may well be counter-productive.
Modi at 67 has at least another 10 years in active politics, perhaps more. Until such time, Gujarat will be a battle of prestige, the backbone of his success and survival in Delhi. The Modi-Amit Shah duo, who has single-handedly changed the narrative of Gujarat and Delhi, will not let the state slip away so easily. Not for another decade.