Gujarat: Bearding the lion in its den 

Congress Working Committee’s much-awaited meeting in Ahmedabad, as well as first ever rally of Priyanka Gandhi have been put off after Pulwama attack and growing tensions at the Indo-Pak border

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Nachiketa Desai

An attempt to beard the lion and its willy fox ally in their den is how observers of Gujarat politics are describing the decision to hold the Congress Working Committee meeting in Gujarat followed by the first-ever rally of party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi mid-way between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. Both the events, however, have been put off in view of the escalation at the Indo-Pak border.

But the reference to the lion and the fox was an obvious pointer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, who have ruled over Gujarat unchecked for the last two decades.

With the exception of a one-year break between October 1996 and October 1997 when BJP rebel Shankarsinh Vaghela became the chief minister, the BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1995. The BJP’s hegemony over Gujarat politics was buoyed by the strident anti-Muslim campaign that led to the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

The Congress, which had assiduously forged an alliance among Kshatriya (representing all Other Backward Classes – OBC), Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim known by the acronym KHAM, began to lose its support base under the onslaught of the Hindutva propaganda which brought these communities under the wider Hindutva umbrella to fight the minority Muslims.

However, the magic mantra of ‘Jai Sriram’ began to weaken its spell by the beginning 2002 as became evident from BJP’s defeat in three bye-elections one each of the Lok Sabha, the state assembly and district panchayat. This was when an incident reminiscent of the Reichstag fire in Germany on February 27, 1933 occurred in Gujarat on the same day in 2002.

While Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews and the Communists for the Reichstag fire, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi held Pakistan sponsored Muslims for the burning of the train at Godhra in which Kar Sevaks were returning from Ayodhya. The charred bodies of the Kar Sevaks were brought from Godhra to Ahmedabad in a procession for cremation.

In all the subsequent state assembly elections since 2002, Pakistan and Muslims were portrayed by Modi as ‘enemies’ of Gujarat. In the meantime, over a dozen persons allegedly on a mission to assassinate Modi, were killed in encounters with the police.

During his 12 years of unchallenged rule as chief minister, Modi projected himself as the champion of industries and commerce coining the phrase ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ as symbol of the enterprising nature of Gujaratis. He organised a biennial extravaganza under the aegis of ‘Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors’ Summit for which he led business delegations to dozens of countries.

It was during the ‘Vibrant Gujarat Summit’ of 2009 that Mukesh and Anil Ambani declared Modi as the most suitable prime ministerial candidate and their voice was endorsed by other business tycoons present on the podium.

Modi’s ‘Gujarat Model’ of development was touted as the panacea of all the problems facing the country. One essential element of this model was outsourcing several functions of the government considered crucial for a welfare state to private entrepreneurs.

As the chief minister, Modi pioneered hiring of manpower on contract or daily wage basis. There are over 600,000 people employed by the state government as contract workers as teachers, drivers, mechanics, even as nurses, forest guards and policemen.

Because these employees were paid low wages and did not get other benefits such as leave, provident fund and medical aid, they indulged in corrupt practices to earn something ‘extra’. Candidates seeking government jobs, even on contract, paid huge sums to be appointed as teachers, forest guards, village revenue officers and police constables.

The simmering discontent among the youth on account of corruption and unemployment burst out as widespread agitation, first by members of the Patel community demanding reservation in jobs and education followed by youth of other backward communities. Simultaneously, the Dalit youth too rose in revolt against a series of incidents of lynching and atrocities in several parts of the state.

Farmers too started protesting against the ‘Gujarat Development Model’ which saw their farm land being acquired for setting up of special economic zones and special investment regions.

This was when elections to the local self-government bodies were held. The elections brought to the fore sharp divisions between the rural and urban voters. While BJP could retain its hold over six municipal corporations of metropolitan areas. The elections to local bodies in December 2015 threw up shockers for the BJP. From 30 district panchayats out 31 in its kitty in 2010, the BJP was reduced to six, while Congress won 24 in the 2015 polls.

This rural-urban divide became evident even during the last assembly elections in 2017 when the BJP could scrape through the half-way mark in a house of 182 by winning 99 seats.

The extent of disillusionment of voters for the ruling party could be seen from the fact that as many as 5.5 lakh voters pressed the None of the Above (NOTA) button, pushing the BJP’s victory margins to as low as 250 to 900 on at least 10 seats. The NOTA votes in such constituencies were three to five times the victory margins.

Rahul Gandhi spoke against crony capitalism, increasing privatisation of education and health services in Gujarat, grabbing of farmers’ lands, pastures and water bodies by the government to benefit a bunch of corporate houses

Main cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot and Bhavnagar were responsible for the BJP’s toughest victory ever in the last three decades. As many as 44 of the 99 seats won by the BJP – just seven more than the number needed for a simple majority – came from 55 constituencies in the cities.

As against this, the Congress picked up 30 out of 54 seats in the largely rural and semi-urban agrarian Saurashtra region as well as maintained its tally of 16 out of 27 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (STs) besides three other independents supported by the party.

The BJP, significantly, lost four out of 10 Scheduled Caste (SC) seats from the total 13 reserved for them. This also includes Vadgam in North Gujarat, where Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani contested as an Independent supported by the Congress. Along with Mevani, Congress improved its performance among the Dalit voters by more than doubling its seats to seven from three in the 2012 elections.

Moreover, three out of six Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress won, including Imran Khedawala who clinched the Khadia-Jamalpur seat in Ahmedabad city, from the BJP for the first time in the last 42 years. With this, the Congress won 55 out of its 80 (including three allies) seats from the Saurashtra region, majority of them being Patels for whom Hardik Patel had taken up cudgels against the BJP.

While the troika of youth leaders, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani highlighted the gross failure of Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ model of development, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi (he had not been elevated then as party president) too struck a chord with the youth and distressed farmers during his campaign which relied more on dialogue than Modi’s monologues and demagoguery.

Rahul Gandhi spoke against crony capitalism, increasing privatisation of education and health services in Gujarat, grabbing of farmers’ lands, pastures and water bodies by the government to benefit a bunch of corporate houses.

Realising that his ‘Gujarat development model’ was not cutting much ice with the masses, Modi turned to his time-tested communal polarisation plank towards the end of his campaign. Referring to a dinner hosted by former diplomat and Congress leader Mani Shankar Iyer and attended by a former Pakistan minister, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Chief of Army Staff Deepak Kapur, among others, Modi alleged that Pakistan was colluding with the Congress to defeat his party in Gujarat and install senior party leader Ahmed Patel as the chief minister.

Modi portrayed every attack on his government’s policies as a collective insult to the people of Gujarat, and asked them, “Do you wish to tolerate an insult to your son of the soil? Can you tolerate it, can you tolerate it if someone calls me a “neech (lowly) man, it is an insult to entire Gujarat.” This prompted the fence-sitting voters to cast their votes for the ‘son of the soil’, not the BJP.

The Congress could also not present a credible chief ministerial face who could lead a population in crises against a possibly hostile government in New Delhi.

Unlike the BJP, which is perennially on election mode 24x7, Congress becomes visible only when there is an election around. The opposition party in Gujarat is seldom seen taking to the streets with public issues and forcing the government to act on them. This role was largely played by Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh.

Rahul Gandhi, who found a connect among the masses during his campaign, is today more emboldened with the party’s recent victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. With Priyanka Gandhi joining her brother, the two are expected to present a sharp contrast to the rabble-rousing Modi.

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