In the afternoon of 8 December, if the Bharatiya Janata Party wins in the Gujarat assembly election, how will it interpret its seventh consecutive victory?
I asked this question to a senior BJP leader in Ahmedabad.
He responded straight away by saying, “[Narendra] Modi!”
“And not Hindutva?” I asked.
“Emnama badhu samai jaay (Modi’s image has absorbed all elements, including Hindutva),” he said.
This election will be remembered for being completely Modi-centric.
The Prime Minister diverted the election from all the immediate issues with his oratory power and skill of building a direct rapport with voters. His physical presence among voters emphasised a focus on ‘Gujarat ni asmita’ (Gujarat’s pride) that he represents so aggressively.
That also explains why he did the unthinkable on 1 December in Ahmedabad. The PM embarked on a journey to visit the lanes and bylanes of the heritage city — a roadshow that Gujaratis had never seen before.
Modi participated in an arduous election campaign in the form of a 50-km-long roadshow, travelling through the length and breadth of 14 Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar constituencies where he stood continuously for five hours in his vehicle and waved to more than 10 lakh supporters and bystanders. To witness the campaign, I stood near Visat Nagar, Narayanpura, where the Rabaris, a pastoral community, are settled. Visat Mata is their goddess whose one temple is in Pakistan. Some were waiting to see Modi and wanted to hand over a petition to facilitate the darshan of Visat Mata in Pakistan.
Modi’s popularity on ground
On the roadside, queuing for the Modi caravan, elders fought with young voters over the real extent of the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) presence in their colony. One middle-aged shopkeeper — a loyal BJP supporter — told me to not ask too many questions. “Ben, charcha rehva do, Modi ne vote aapiye chiye etle shanti thi raheva male che (Sister, leave aside discussion; we are living in peace because we vote for Modi),” he politely said.
This one-line explanation, though highly layered, defines why Modi is difficult to take on on his home turf. This Gujarat election is apt to study how election campaigning is all about creating an atmosphere that gives a sense of security to people. It works wonders in Gujarat electorates.
In public rallies in South Gujarat and North Gujarat, Modi changed his boli (parlance) to suit the local audience. In Saurashtra, he injected a warm Kathiawadi tone.
On social media, both the BJP and Congress faced the onslaught of the AAP. If voting happened on Twitter, the AAP would have won handsomely — in the real battlefield, though, the BJP reminded it that Gujarat is different from Punjab.
But all the might, money, and politics of the BJP won’t be able to stop the AAP’s birth in Gujarat through this election. However weak its presence will be, the AAP will force the BJP and Congress to change their ways after the election.
All wasn’t hunky-dory
Modi and Amit Shah kept a tight focus on ‘peace and stability’ in Gujarat. They brought back the details of the Congress’ ‘corrupt governance’, dangers of terrorism to India, Article 370, evacuation of Indian students from the Ukraine warzone, and security-related issues. In Muslim-dominated areas, Shah raised the communal temperature when he spoke of the 2002 Godhra riots and implied that only the BJP can keep the state riot-free.
Two months ago, the Congress and AAP struggled to take a grip on the election and its agenda by talking about inflation and corruption at all levels. But as soon as Modi and Shah descended to Gujarat from New Delhi and held more than 65 public rallies and 15 roadshows combined, no particular serious issue could gather the required heft to nail the BJP.
BJP’s propaganda machinery worked efficiently, particularly in regional print media and Gujarati TV channels, to divert debates to the “distant past and future of Gujarat”.
It is not the case that everything worked hunky-dory for the BJP. In the last few months, there was a severe indictment of the Gandhinagar government among the people. Modi had to root out serving chief minister Vijay Rupani and his entire cabinet. Most of them have been sulking in the election campaign.
Gujarat currently faces a host of pressing issues — inadequate water supply in tribal areas, costly private education, poor health infrastructure, and widespread corruption — which touch the poor and middle class most. The sad memories of Covid mismanagement are still alive in families who lost their loved ones because of the lack of health infrastructure.
A divided house
In this election, the BJP has been a divided house. In every constituency, there are dissenting leaders and cadres, and in many others, BJP rebels are fighting against the party’s weak candidates.
Although at the start, president C.R. Patil’s leadership injected enthusiasm into the party’s young cadre, his ‘corporate-style’ functioning was not appreciated by the core group. The set process of selection of candidates was not strictly adhered to and was expedited due to missed deadlines. Even the advertisement campaign — Aa Gujarat main banavyu che (I have made this Gujarat) — didn’t work as expected. It was underplayed by the party.
In the past, BJP had a well-established mechanism to work on rebel candidates, but this time it failed and more than dozen leaders have been suspended for anti-party activities. Most interestingly, the first phase of low voting showed that the BJP’s bragging of “panna pramukh” (party in-charge at booth level) and “booth management” are overrated. What’s the use of a panna pramukh system if it doesn’t bring voters to the polling booth?
This election also exposed the top leaders of the Congress and BJP who were constantly denying the presence of the AAP in Gujarat. The BJP leaders — a bit funnily — tried to inflate the chances of Congress winning the election. The AAP was getting hit by both.
The BJP told the media again and again that the AAP doesn’t have any ideology, so it cannot survive long enough in the Indian political context. The BJP leaders cited examples of the Left parties, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Dravidian parties that grew only due to their ideologies.
In 2017, the BJP got 1.4 crore votes and the Congress around 1.2 crore votes, which was considered the party’s peak in the state. Now, the Congress is weaker.
In this election, the Congress had no coherent political message against the BJP — it had no backing from the central leadership or pan-Gujarat creative media campaign. All Congress candidates fought their political battle, largely, with their own funding. They were no match for the BJP’s resources. Congress leaders Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia, Bharatsinh Solanki, and President Jagdish Thakor worked in four different regions. Modi’s confidence stems from the vote share difference between the BJP and Congress from the 2017 election. Even if the BJP loses votes due to anti-incumbency, it will remain in the race comfortably.
Answer to some questions
Many local AAP leaders regret that even the Gujarat youth is divided and most of them seem to have no appetite for revolution — such as the 1974 Navnirman Andolan against the sliding economy and corruption of then-CM Chimanbhai Patel.
The AAP, which is emerging more and more as a conformist party, is all set to take birth on the land of Mahatma Gandhi but will see hard times even if it secures a respectable vote share and a few seats. The BJP has given it ‘special attention’ and employed more resources in constituencies where AAP leaders are contesting.
This election isn’t boring or underwhelming because the results will answer a series of important questions. How and to what extent did Modi impact the poll? Did Modi’s popularity peak in this election? What will be the BJP’s vote share compared to 2017? How many votes did the AAP wrest from the BJP and Congress in urban and rural areas? Will the AAP’s final vote share be good enough for it to become ‘Naya Congress’ in Gujarat? On how many seats did the AAP give BJP a clear advantage by cutting Congress votes? Will the BJP improve in Saurashtra and North Gujarat? What role did casteism play in the seats won by Congress?
What are the real issues that helped the AAP’s entry in Gujarat? How will Modi repair the broken governance in Gujarat? What kind of changes will he bring to the functioning of the party?
The Gujarat story is likely to remain about and around Modi. A Surat-based senior journalist who knew Modi well, says: “No one can win in Gujarat till the opposition is able to prove convincingly in people’s court that Modi is a fake Hindu. Obviously, it’s not going to happen. Till the time Modi’s credentials are intact, Gujaratis would keep electing the BJP.”
Let’s wait for 8 December.
Sheela Bhatt is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @sheela2010. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)