A nudge and a wake-up call

A nudge and a wake-up call

Before the votes for the last few seats in Gujarat were counted on December 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went full throttle, having lost none of the momentum that ignited his campaign in the state elections. Modi addressed BJP leaders and workers at the party headquarters in a style that fused aggression with evangelism. He signed off birthing yet another slogan - "jeetega bhai jeetega, vikas hee jeetega" ((we will win, brother, we will win, only development will win) - for the slew of elections, including in Karnataka, that will precede the great battle of 2019.    

The stress on 'vikas' emanated from Modi's speech that themed 'development' as the principal reason why the BJP had been winning in Gujarat since 1995. That's not true. The first few elections that helped the BJP win in the western state were dominated by Hindutva of a visceral nature. However, back then, too, Modi played for higher stakes and had already signalled that he would not be content remaining a regional satrap. He melded Hindutva with development and articulated the plank through imagery and symbolism contained in the distribution of Narmada waters to the parched Saurashtra and Kutch regions and assured 24X7 power supply to farmers.

Identifying himself with development, Modi claimed that since he won the 2014 election and "transported" development from Gandhinagar to Delhi, India yearned for it, as though the country discovered it for the first time. He contended that people craved for development because they realised his government was strong and transparent enough to take audacious decisions without pursuing a hidden agenda. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was placed at the heart of Modi's concept of development. He read the Gujarat mandate as an endorsement of GST, although it was criticised by nearly every section in the state, just as the BJP's win in Uttar Pradesh was projected as approval of demonetisation.

In expatiating his notions of development, Modi, consciously or otherwise, unveiled his outlook for elections 2019.   He was eloquent on the rise of the 'neo-middle' class that, to him, is miles removed from the complacent generations of yore, lambasted the Congress for resurrecting caste fault lines in a state that had forgotten "jaat-paat" and celebrated his own "sab ka saath, sab ka vikas" slogan.  

Gone was the ritualistic invocation of the poor and the marginalised or the farmer who was the chief protagonist of the Gujarat election. Apart from the Patidar-driven uprising for reservations in education and jobs, and GST, the Gujarat polls were about the anguish and hurt experienced by the farmers of Saurashtra and North Gujarat, impaired by the low minimum support price paid for cotton and groundnuts, their principal cash crops, under his rule as compared to what the Manmohan Singh government gave them. The farmers felt let down by the failure of the Centre's widely advertised crop insurance scheme – a scheme that sliced off premiums from their bank accounts but failed to pay them insurance money when due.  

The Gujarat elections were about the 'kheduth' (peasant) counterpoised against the 'udyogpati' (industrialist). The farmers felt that the development and welfare scale had tilted disproportionately against them. They felt ignored by the central and Gujarat governments and hence warmed up to the Congress's thrust on agrarian distress and the plight of farmers. Congress's promise to waive off their loans was what accounted for its impressive showing in Saurashtra, the region that contributes the largest number of assembly seats.

In its eagerness to pound away on the virtues of GST, the BJP gave away two vital constituencies to Congress virtually on a platter: the farmers and the jobless youth. Modi and the BJP had kept populism away from Gujarat's political discourse for several years. To the unemployed graduates and undergraduates whose family businesses were hit hard by GST and demonetisation, Congress's pledge to give monthly doles of various denominations to the undergraduates, graduates and post-graduates was a windfall.

The BJP, meanwhile, pulled out all stops to stem discontent among the GST-affected traders and industrialists. Modi deployed his senior ministers to speak to the representatives of Gujarat's influential commerce and industry chambers who were earlier impressed by the presentations made by Congress's Rahul Gandhi and former finance minister P Chidambaram in their interactions.

The central ministers hammered away on three points: Gujarat was hospitable to reforms because its people were not risk-averse, the concept of a single tax country-wide is eventually a money-saver, and the Prime Minister had no ulterior motive in implementing GST. The mercantile and manufacturing communities were persuaded by these arguments and remained largely on the BJP's side.

The verdict also showed up the soft underbelly of Gujarat. Although Hindutva of the acutely polarising genre was not overtly on play, despite Congress's open use of a 'softer' version, the variations in swing in the two phases revealed that Modi's high-decibel campaign, centred around an alleged Congress-Pakistan conspiracy to dislodge BJP from Gujarat and plant Congress's Ahmed Patel as chief minister worked in north and central Gujarat, which polled last. The campaign revived an old anxiety among people that used to be openly voiced earlier: that Congress's return would make Muslims aggressive towards Hindus.

For Congress, the lesson to learn is that 'Hindutva' cannot be a nuanced concept. The BJP has reclaimed the hardcore religious and 'nationalist' space for some time to come. If Congress has to return to power in Gujarat, it must highlight its core value of inclusion and a pro-poor outlook.

The message for Congress is, "yes, you can". Provided you give your party a fresh lick of paint and nurture the young trio of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani that gave you that little edge and contained BJP to 99 seats. For BJP, it was a wake-up call, demanding mid-course correction.

(The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi)

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