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Modi rules Gujarat because there’s a vacuum. Even cultural celebrities can’t fill it

Bhajan singers from Gujarat are a rage on YouTube—as popular as Punjabi rap singers—and dozens of their songs have garnered one crore or more views.

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What is so special about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership status in Gujarat?

There aren’t even 10 popular Gujaratis living in Gujarat who are truly as famous as Modi— from Dwarka in the west to Dahod in the east, and from Dharampur in the south to Dhanera in the north.

There is a distressing leadership vacuum in all fields within Gujarat’s public space. There are no pan-Gujarat leaders who can steer the masses, lead, inspire and set an example of the humane values of life. And it is here that PM Modi’s significance lies.

Long before he became India’s Prime Minister, Modi had been successful in holding on to the largest section of Gujarati imagination across all castes and classes. He remains controversial with his ‘Hindu poster boy’ image but occupies centre stage like none other.

He has presented himself in fields beyond politics and become invincible because there are not many Gujarat-based leaders in performing arts, culture or business either who can compete with him or come anywhere close in terms of celebrity status.

When it comes to Modi’s image, the ideological divide between BJP and Congress workers seems to blur. Many Congress leaders and workers privately say that “Modi is a strong leader.” A senior Congress leader put it as “Juvano ma tatvik farak nathi (No fundamental difference between the young cadre of Congress and BJP).”

Modi’s image is, therefore, one of the vital contributing factors in the non-stop marathon victory march of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, now he is a non-resident Gujarati. The leadership through ‘remote control’ has its limitations.

Also, it helped Modi that in his formative years in politics, he wasn’t thickly associated with his native Vadnagar, near Mehsana in North Gujarat.

Modi entered active politics in 1987, but till 2014, he never wore his ‘Ghanchi Vanik’ caste on his sleeve. This, along with his ‘Hindu identity politics’, helped shape his public image.

There is no ‘Ek Gujarat’.

Kutch and Saurashtra’s culture, history, language, music, food and dress sense are quite different from South, North and Central Gujarat. Kutchis and Saurashtrians speak different colloquial languages.

The tribal areas of Chotaudepur or Dang have hardly anything in common with Cambay or Mehsana. So, it is not easy to gain popularity in all parts of Gujarat.

That is why it is difficult to establish leadership in the entire state.

Even Modi has faced challenges, evident from Congress’s 41 percent vote share in the 2017 assembly election. Modi’s project to build his leadership all over Gujarat was never easy due to the state’s diversity.

Modi does have some contenders, though. Morari Bapu, a celebrity known across Gujarat, is one. Late Dhirubhai Ambani, a native of Chorwad in Saurashtra, has been the state’s biggest influencer since its formation in 1960. But he never was a permanent resident of Gujarat.

Lately, Ahmedabad-based business tycoon Gautam Adani has acquired celebrity status. But neither the Adanis and the Ambanis, nor the old-elite families of the Sarabhais and Lalbhais are, in any way, influencing contemporary Gujarati culture.

The Gujarati film industry and literature scene have produced some celebrities, but they have also been peripheral in influencing a larger audience. In Ahmedabad, poets are asked to pay the publisher—yes, you read that right—to publish their poetry.

However, no society remains static.

Also read: ‘I’m Mata’s gift’. Gujarat AAP’s leader Isudan Gadhvi is seeking moksha in politics

Bhajan singers are filling a vacuum

In the absence of pan-Gujarat celebrities and leaders who are capable of performing on a larger stage, one can see a crowd surging in and around various religious sects, temples, gods, and goddesses. The phenomenon is not new, but life around temples has dramatically changed due to social media.

Gujaratis have been flocking to their family deities, community idols and sects— Aghoris (Shaivite sadhus), TantricsKathakars (storytellers), astrologers and Bhuvas (spiritual healers) who are also helping them remain connected with a larger society.

In Gujarat’s economy, Amul, Ambani and Adani are not only job and wealth-creators: The Gujarat living and thriving around temples in Dwarka, Somnath, Junagadh, Pavagadh, Ambaji, Patan, Chotila, Dakor, Shamlaji, Palitana etc is backed by a solid support system that has created scores of celebrity Bhajan (prayer) singers, Kathakars and folk musicians. The infrastructure of and around temples has not been created only by Hindus but also Jains, Sunnis, Khojas, Bohras and Memons among others. They have access to an enviable infrastructure to continue their religious traditions and welfare projects. Many temples’ management is commercialised and not transparent.

Recently, Patidar leader Naresh Patel acquired celebrity status after building the Khodaldham Temple in Gujarat’s Kagvad at a cost of Rs 250 crore.

Believe it or not, after Modi, all famous Gujarati entities are connected to religion, directly or indirectly. The Swaminarayan sect, for one,  has become so huge and influential that it wants to be recognised as a ‘religion.’

And an overwhelming number of Gujarati voters are devotees of some religious cult or other.

Besides the followers of the most revered Ram-Sita, Radha-Krishna, Shiv-Parvati, Ganesh and Hanuman, worshippers of Swaminarayan, Gayatri Mantra Pariwar,  Amba Mata, Khodal Ma, Umiya Mata, Chamunda Devi, Randel Ma, Ma Gabbar, Ashapuri Ma, Nagbai, Momai Mata, Jalaram Bapu, Sattadhar’s Sant Aapagiga temple and Salangpur Hanuman temple run in millions. These Devi Matas (mother goddesses) have a meaningful social context within their respective regions, and heart-moving mythologies connected to them.

Many Devi Mata temples are caste specific. Of course, the most important aspect of these temples is devotees. When you talk to them, you know how important these beliefs are to them. Many believers are saddled with daily problems and a hard life. Their local temple is the only place where they find solace. Over the years, many devotees have told me that the “Devi is leading them.”

What is distinct about this ‘religious’ Gujarat is that most of the sub-sects of Hinduism are well-organised. They have deep pockets to support local community needs and they have enormous socio-political influence because the local economy completely depends on the influx of pilgrims.

If you want to know more about who all enjoy star status in Gujarat today, you must learn about singers Geeta Rabari and Vijay Suvada, who belong to the pastoral Rabari community. Musician Jignesh Kaviraj belongs to the Barot (historian, mythographer) community, while the OBC (Other Backward Classes) Gadhvi community boasts hundreds of folk singers. Barot and Gadhvis were engaged by kings to share and sing stories of valour, they were gifted lyricists and singers. When all these bhajan singers participate in events, they are showered with cash. It is an ugly scene but people say they do it to show respect toward singers.

Many times, these singers collect lakhs of rupees on stage. Some bhajan singers like Kirtidan Gadhvi are booked a year in advance.

Also read: Gujarat voters question BJP’s ‘remote-controlled’ govt. But it’s no Advantage AAP, Congress

Gujarat’s sensational Bhajan singers

They are a rage on YouTube—as popular as Punjabi rap singers—and dozens of their songs have garnered one crore or more views.

There is a glut of Gujarati bhajans and songs on YouTube.

Once upon a time, celebrity singer Vijay Suvada’s father was selling tea in the Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad. Later, he joined BJP. Early in life, Vijay worked as a security guard in an apartment complex in Ahmedabad’s Vastrapur. But in the last eight years, things have taken a turn for the better—he has posted 500 songs on YouTube and become a millionaire.

His song Touch Ma Rejo (Keep in Touch) was released in January 2022. It has already clocked 24 million views.

Jignesh Kaviraj’s song, Hath Ma Chhe Whiskey Ne Aankho Man Paani, Bewafa Sanam Taari Bahu Meharbani (Whiskey in my Hand, Eyes are Moist, Thanks to You Disloyal Lover) has earned 18 crore views in the last five years.

Geeta Rabari’s song, Rona Ser Ma Re, Chali Kismet Ni Gaadi Top Gear Man Re (Sher Ma Re [goddess], Vehicle of Luck is in Top Gear) has been seen by 52 crore plus viewers—including from Uttarakhand, where it has been viewed by lakhs.

What is distinct about these singers-turned-millionaires is that most of them are ‘bhajan-kirtan’ singers. Their many love songs are woven around the presence of “Devi-Mata.” But it is interesting to see how songs that show a woman ditching her poor lover for a richer husband are hits.

Most of these ‘Devi’ worshippers charge between Rs 2-10 lakh per night. They enjoy their celebrity status and luxurious lifestyle while unfailingly posting it all on Instagram.

Not surprisingly, the managers or trustees of hundreds of sprawling temples have been dabbling in local politics.

Also read: BJP understands Congress better than it understands itself

Religious Gujarat is political Gujarat 

Since the late 1980s, the BJP has knitted a tight network of religious and political Gujarat. The same networking process has been adopted in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. The political speeches of BJP leaders almost always start with seeking blessings of local Devis. On 22 November, when Home Minister Amit Shah started his speech in North Gujarat’s Disa, near the Pakistan border, he hailed local goddess Ma Naleshwari Devi for helping Indian soldiers find their way in the war of 1971. The very same day, party president J.P.Nadda mentioned Mrudeshwar Mahadev in his speech in Gujarat’s Shehra.

BJP’s organisational capacity has penetrated to the booth level, also because the managers of influential local temples and BJP leaders have a social alliance or belong to the same family.

In the ongoing election, D.K.Swami, BJP candidate from Jambusar, is a saint of the Swaminarayan sect. Gadhada constituency candidate Shambhuprasadji Tundiya is the ‘chief mahant’ (head priest) of a highly revered Dalit temple.

Vijay Suvada had joined Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2021 but this year, his father Ranchod Rabari took him to Gujarat BJP president C.R. Patil.

“In the meeting, Patil told me I am young and famous. I have a long career ahead of me so I should join BJP,” Vijay Suvada tells me.

He says he joined the party after just two meetings with BJP leaders, and is now engaged in the party’s election campaign. Being a celebrity, he is able to attract crowds for his new party.

Sheela Bhatt is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @sheela2010. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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