Call it a phrase, metaphor, a ‘political proverb’ or a ‘sacred site’ that grants an edge to those who touch it, ‘development’ is a word that trickles down like honey from the mouths of politicians vying for power in the Indian democracy today. Political groups, incumbent or in the Opposition, use the term frequently as a crutch for their claims, counterclaims, admiration and criticism. And it has now entered the political vocabulary of Gujarat, where the Legislative Assembly elections will be held in the coming winter.
Recently, Arvind Kejriwal, leader and star campaigner of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) held a rally in Bharuch, a tribal district in Gujarat and raised the issue of development in the state. He critiqued the ‘Gujarat model of development’, which is one of the calling cards of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The moniker of ‘vikas purush’, which Narendra Modi earned during his tenure as the chief minister in the state worked as a ‘symbolic capital’ of Narendra Modi during the 2014 parliamentary elections. But Kejriwal, instead of accepting it, tried to expose the ‘Gujarat model’ by highlighting the problems of schools and hospitals in the state. He also indirectly proposed an alternative — the ‘Delhi model’ of development, with claims of building a high-quality, equitable school system and competent medical system.
BJP’s development success in Gujarat
It is interesting to note, however, that a few days before Kejriwal’s rally, Modi inaugurated and led the foundation of various water supply and urban infrastructure projects worth around Rs 22,000 crores in Dahod and Panchmahal, underdeveloped tribal areas of Gujarat. Modi’s projects in the past have attempted to establish an elaborate network of four, six and eight-lane highways as well. In his model of development, the calls for basic needs like water is crucial, to which he responded by making the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River despite heavy opposition by civil society groups. In retrospect, people have now realised that it’s because of this project that enough water is available in various parts of rural and urban Gujarat.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government, during its 27 years of rule in the state, lay the infrastructural foundation that has fostered development in Gujarat. Modi’s vision, as then CM, to push for tourism in the state has also translated into job opportunities. It is also interesting to observe how the BJP regime has been renovating old religious sites and memorials while developing new ones such as the Statue of Unity in the Kevadia tribal zone. These sites have worked as catalysts in evolving various kinds of businesses, trades, and commerce in the state. By strengthening Special Economic Zones in the state, the BJP has also created an ecosystem where traditional, region-based ‘dhandhas’ like making tiles, handicrafts and cottage industries can flourish.
Gujarat has also effectively implemented various government-sponsored schemes such as PM Awas Yojana, PM Krishi Sinchai Yojana, MGNREGA, and various national assistance programmes such as old age and widow pension. Through these social support schemes, BJP has evolved a huge group of beneficiaries in the rural part of Gujarat who work actively to support the party.
Space for Congress and AAP
With these success stories, there are few who can sell the dream of ‘development’ in Gujarat and reshape the future electoral politics of the state. However, despite BJP’s best efforts, the benefits of such programmes are yet to reach various tribal zones across the state such as Bharuch, Dahod, Chhotaudepur and Dang. It is in these underdeveloped parts of the state where Congress and AAP can forge a political space to mobilise dissatisfied tribal people, who comprise around an estimated 16 per cent of the total population.
However, for the two national parties, winning over the tribal people of Gujarat won’t be as simple. The unfulfilled aspirations in these areas have caused the beginning of independent tribal politics in the state in the form of the Maheshbhai Vasava-led Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP). The party already has an impressive vote base among various tribal communities and the Aam Aadmi Party, which is cognizant of this, has moved quickly to form an alliance with the BTP for the upcoming elections. But the BJP hasn’t given up yet. It is now focussing on a micro development plan for this region. Only time will tell who will succeed.
For now, all we know is Delhi and Gujarat aren’t the same and treating it as such would be a big mistake for Kejriwal. From geographical areas to developmental history, there are indicators to show that the needs of the people are different too. Promising good schools and nice hospitals like that of Delhi, won’t evoke a response from the diverse aspirations of the people of Gujarat in the upcoming election. In order to project themselves as a symbol of development, politicians will have to contest the iconic image of Narendra Modi. Not only will the Opposition have to draw a bigger line of development than Modi, but it will also have to improve upon the ongoing developmental projects that the PM has been working on. The central plot of the electoral discourse in the upcoming state assembly election, no doubt, will be claims and counterclaims around development and unfortunately, for AAP and Congress, it has the towering image of ex-CM and now PM Narendra Modi to scale.
The author is Professor and Director at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. He tweets @poetbadri. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)