Decoding the Gujarat election campaign
After the posters have faded and the buntings removed, what will be remembered as the striking feature of the election campaign in Gujarat is not the Bharatiya Janata Party’s narrow victory after having ruled the state for 22 years, but how close it came to losing the state in spite of so many advantages. For one, its ascent to power at the centre was based on the claim that the Gujarat model of governance was a success. Then there was the deploying of virtually the entire cabinet and many chief ministers to the campaign. And crowning over all that was a prime minister who led the campaign in his home ground. As the results show, those eager to write the obituary of India’s Grand Old Party—the Congress—will have to restrain their enthusiasm.
Deciphering an electoral verdict on the day of the outcome is perilous and recommended only for the brave and the vain, but some facts should be noted: the defeat of some Congress leaders who switched parties and joined the BJP, and the success of Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, both indicate popular revulsion with the campaign that Prime Minister Narendra Modi led. For the striking feature of the campaign was the shrill, surreal tone of Modi’s many campaign speeches.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in front of a microphone must be in search of a headline. It is also a truth largely accepted that the politician worried about getting a majority must make statements that are outrageous and exaggerated, but some of Modi’s remarks in Gujarat were so absurd that they revealed delusions of grandeur. They sought to stoke fears of conspiracies where none existed.
To understand that, let us turn to the story of the guest who came to dinner.
Modi deserves credit for making the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh lose his equanimity, forcing the former prime minister to issue a robust defence of a dinner party at the home of the suspended Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar, at which a former Pakistan minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri (who went to college with Aiyar in England), was present. So were other retired senior officials—bureaucrats and army officers. To imply that such a group was plotting to remove Modi as prime minister, as Modi did, shows fervid imagination, perhaps insecurity, even desperation.
Instead of focusing on BJP’s 22-year record in Gujarat, he complained about what the Congress did, or didn’t do, since Independence. He also claimed that the Congress hated Gujarat and Gujaratis. He milked Aiyar’s ill-judged comment (where he called Modi neech, or low, and which Aiyar explained was meant to mean “low” and not “low-born”) for all it was worth, saying it was an insult to his social status. Aiyar had apologised and the Congress promptly suspended him. But Modi saw that as his golden chance. He then offered a corollary to the Epimenides Paradox. Epimenides had shown the logical absurdity of generalisation and self-referencing, when he said that all Cretans are liars. Epimenides was a Cretan—so did that make him a liar? And was his statement true or false? Modi was saying, in effect: they attacked me; I am a Gujarati; ergo, all of Gujarat is attacked.
Equating the self with the state is usually the hallmark of the power hungry (Louis XIV is supposed to have said in the 1650s L’etat, c’est moi, or I am the state), or a sycophant (recall Dev Kant Barua, former Congress president, saying “Indira is India, India is Indira,” during the Emergency). Such assertions, even when implied, are laughable when democratically elected leaders make them.
Finally, there was religion, which he brought into his stump speeches, a ploy that can polarise the electorate. (Congress president Rahul Gandhi did no better, but at least he restricted his religiosity to visiting shrines). If this continues in the lead-up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, expect more bizarre claims and melodramatic tears and less conversation about development.
Modi’s script intended to resurrect the notion of asmita, which means pride or identity. Politicians in Gujarat have often turned to that theme to rouse the electorate. After the 2002 massacres, Modi had portrayed the attacks on him as attacks on the Gujarati identity. That was preposterous, but such rhetoric has a long history in Gujarat, dating back at least to the charges levelled against the critics of the Narmada dam from the late 1980s.
There will be lessons to learn from this campaign about Modi based on what he said. But there is also a lesson based on what he did not say.
On 7 December, the day after the 25th anniversary of the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Shambhu Lal Regar hacked and burned Mohammed Afrazul, a Bengali labourer, in Rajasthan. Regar’s 14-year-old nephew calmly filmed the act as well as Regar’s rant that what he did was his response to the unsubstantiated phenomenon called “love jihad”. Since then, Regar has been arrested and Hindu groups have unfurled a saffron flag at court premises in Udaipur and attacked the police, protesting his arrest. In the days since, Modi addressed several rallies in Gujarat, visited more temples, and travelled in a seaplane. As expected, he said nothing about that horrifying murder. Nor did Rahul Gandhi, but that’s not the point. Contrast Modi’s non-reaction with how other leaders have reacted to acts of violence in their home countries. Contrast, too, with the speed with which Modi has sympathised with victims of terrorist violence in distant lands.
Sometimes silence is as eloquent as speech.