Elections to the Gujarat assembly—due in three months—have assumed larger significance because of the uncertainty prevailing at the Centre.
The election is crucial for both the principal national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress would love to claim Gujarat to help decide in favour of early elections to the Lok Sabha. For BJP, Gujarat—a state showcased by the party as a model state in governance—is a must-win electoral battle.
In its internal assessments, the Congress party, which has been hopeful of a victory in Gujarat until recently, is now beginning to sense that a victory may elude it after all. Turns out that BJP chief minister Narendra Modi—in spite of huge internal battles with party leaders—is a very formidable opponent.
What is it that makes Modi such a tough and feared political rival? The biggest reason is Modi’s new style of governance. Even his biggest rivals in the BJP and the Congress voters acknowledge that Modi is a leader whose personal integrity is beyond any doubt. He also has a single minded focus on governance and has been able to keep the state’s bureaucracy—and his own party—on a relatively tight leash.
Contrast Gujarat’s governance with other states, most of them seeing an anti-incumbency mood. Chief ministers in these states typically lack any control over administration or indulge in rampant corruption.
Corruption and favouritism in schemes meant for the poor and disregarding the interests of farmers are key reasons for their unpopularity. This doesn’t mean Gujarat is free from corruption. But, under Modi’s tenure, demanding a bribe is asking for trouble. And that makes a huge difference to the common man.
Though Gujarat has been largely peaceful these past five years, the ‘Hindutva’ sentiments continue to run deep in the Gujarati psyche. To add to Modi’s lead, the so-called “minority appeasement” efforts of the Central government, coupled with its “soft on terror” image, make the Congress party’s task a difficult one in the state.
While the Congress is trying to woo the Muslim vote at the national level to fend off charges from political rivals that it is pro-American and, thus, allegedly anti-Muslim, the party runs the risk of alienating a largely Hindu electorate in Gujarat. The Congress party’s stand on the “fake encounter” of Sohrabuddin Shaikh will also come handy for Modi if he chooses to launch a high-pitched Hindutva campaign, which he is widely expected to do.
Modi is a master orator and knows the pulse of the people of Gujarat and how to convert their sentiments into mass support. He has maintained a studious silence on all electoral and communal issues so far. Most voters of Gujarat believe that Modi has something up his sleeve and, when he begins his political speak, he will mesmerize—and polarize voters—with his oratory, persuasive speeches and generally macho appeal.
There is no doubt that Modi is disliked by many—within the BJP and outside—for his arrogant style. As a result, Modi is fighting not just his rivals in the party, but the state units of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well. Still, the RSS has apparently “directed” the state unit to throw its weight behind a sure winner that Modi is looking like, though it remains to be seen whether the dictat will prevail.
Many of his detractors are also overrated. Unlike what many people think, Keshubhai Patel isn’t hugely popular among the Patels. On the contrary, Modi enjoys tremendous popularity among both the Patels and the Thakurs, though it has taken some dents recently following suspension of some Patel BJP rebels in the state.
The problem for the Congress is that it lacks a good leader to rival Modi. Shankersinh Vaghela—Modi’s former arch rival in the BJP—has some potential, but the Congress is deeply distrustful of his intentions and his personal political goals.
The entire local media in the state—not to speak of the national media, which revels in competitive Modi bashing—is generally ranged against Modi. In turn, he is not bothered to cultivate the media as most politicians do, so there is a bit of a stand-off and “time to settle scores” element to media coverage of Modi. Modi has proved doomsayers wrong by winning the 2002 assembly elections that followed the communal riots.
But this time, with large sections of his own party and the local media ganged up against him, Mody will fight the battle on a governance agenda combined, as expected, with a strong Hindutva flavour.
With elections another three months away and the state yet to get into campaign mode, my current reading is that Modi will prevail once again and lead his party to victory.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consultant firm in New Delhi. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org