Ahmedabad/Vadodara/Kevadia: On Thursday, with just four days to go for the first phase of polling in the state, the first thing that strikes this reporter is the absence of a strident election campaign in Gujarat. That is strange, given that the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party is engaged in a contest with the Congress which has, at times, turned vitriolic and bitter.
Missing are the blaring loudspeakers, scores of pamphlets, banner advertisements and gigantic cutouts (akin to ones we would see in Tamil Nadu, were the elections to happen there). Much of the activity is centred around the offices of the two parties—and they are located very close to each other.
Part of the peace and quiet in campaigning is because of rules put in place by the Election Commission, but no one really has a credible explanation as to why things are as peaceful and quiet as they are.
Driving around Ahmedabad is no different from driving around (or being driven around) any other large city in India. There is the expected chaos; the only difference is that no one seems to swear in the city—not even when multi-tasking drivers with one hand cradling the ubiquitous cell phone and the other gripping the wheel, practise near-misses on the city’s streets.
Everybody is a bhai (brother) or a behn (sister) here. So it is Dinesh Bhai who ferries this reporter from the airport to the hotel. Dinesh Bhai is a Leva Patel, the dominant sub-group among Patels which is supposedly opposed to chief minister Narendra Modi. The man himself is a Congress supporter. “The Congress has not gained in strength. Instead, it is the BJP which has become weak,” he says.
It is this reporter’s third visit to the state, with the last one being in 1996.
Ahmedabad has changed since. The Sabarmati river, then a mere stream, is now a flowing river.
According to locals, waters from the Narmada canal are key to the transformation; the local administration is developing a promenade along the river bank to rival Mumbai’s famed Chowpatty.
Prosperity is all too apparent in the city—commercial and residential complexes are sprouting all over Ahmedabad.
It’s Friday morning and the vehicle supposed to carry this reporter around is ready to go at 8am. After traversing a fourth of the distance to Vadodara on a super-fast expressway, however, both driver and passenger realize that it is the wrong car (or the wrong passenger). This one is meant for an American family. The car departs after dropping this reporter along the highway, 43km from Ahmedabad. That leads to an accidental meeting with local farmer Vadilal Chauhan, who stresses the fact that he is a Rajput (a warrior clan from western India). He claims he has had to sacrifice some of his land for the highway, in return for Rs1 lakh. And he claims reigning chief minister Modi will win the elections. The vehicle meant for the reporter arrives a good hour later. Meanwhile, cars and other vehicles zip by at around 140kmph on the expressway.
Traditionally, Gujarat has always witnessed a two-way contest between the BJP and the Congress. This election has several new twists. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), fresh from its success in Uttar Pradesh, is keen to make a dent in the state. Tribals and scheduled castes make up a fifth of the state’s population, which would suggest that the BSP is in with a chance, but in the future. Right now, the party has the potential to play spoiler in close contests. The tribals and scheduled castes have traditionally voted for the Congress and a good turnout for the BSP may swing the contest in BJP’s favour.
Interestingly, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, turns up to campaign for his party’s candidates. Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (U) runs a coalition government in Bihar with the BJP. Given that Muslims are a very important component of the JD(U)’s electoral constituency, it is difficult to imagine Kumar campaigning for the BJP. At the same time, it is unlikely he will attack an ally.
Kumar does the predictable: he takes the middle of the road. Using a helicopter, he campaigns in Kevadia village, where the sarpanch is a woman, Kanta Behn. The village is a mere 8km from the Narmada dam. While Kumar flies to the village, this reporter takes the longer route, 250km by road.
At the site chosen for the meeting, waiting for Kumar to land, around 300 tribals are packed in a tent, listening to the opening act—a JD(U) activist, who, clearly was oblivious of the audience and the context, is saying something about “123 and Hyde Act”. As Kumar’s helicopter touches down, the crowd turns its back on the speaker, clearly more enthused by the colourful aircraft.
Kumar’s entry ends up being more exciting than his speech. And he doesn’t say anything against Narendra Modi.
Which brings us to the man himself. Two broad themes have shaped people’s perception of Modi. The first is what he has done for the state’s development, including effecting a dramatic turnaround in the number of girls dropping out of school. The second is his ability to take on the system—which includes the party, fixers, middlemen and just about anybody else.
Modi has, relentlessly over the last five years, focused his regime on development.
Alongside, he has targeted fixers with equal passion. This, according to government officials, means graft is history. According to an Indian Administrative Service officer, who did not wish to be identified, the chief minister has ensured that local officials stay in their present jobs for sufficient time. “We now have three-four years on our job. Earlier, we would have been shunted out on even a small complaint,” the official says.
Modi has followed the same dictum with respect to party cadres.
No one is allowed to influence the working of the state’s administrative machinery. And he has replaced 49 of the sitting MLAs in the legislature. The result: dissidence.
For the Congress, which has been out of power in this state for the last 12 years, this elections present their best chance. And the party has chosen to seize the moment through a very intelligent campaign: Modi’s enemy is my friend.
The flip side is that Modi has managed to portray this election as a referendum on his rule. And, if he has admirers, they are among the state’s voters. The system wants to clearly defeat him.
The Congress’ plan appeared to be working. It managed to restrict the debate to development and Modi’s neglect/alienation of dominant caste groupings—the Kolis and the Leva Patels. This meant that the Congress could keep its voter base of KHAM (Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) together. In a state where the losing side gets about 40% of the votes, this is critical.
If there is no real distinction between the two parties, then the turnout in the elections usually ends up being modest and the party with the more united constituent base should be the winner.
The Congress game plan all but worked. However, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s speech, where she termed the ruling government “merchants of death” appears to have changed everything. Modi has ratcheted up the ante.
By the end of the week, the communal card is back in play and carefully choreographed low-key campaign by the Congress has been thrown out of gear.
The final question:who will win?
The race looks close. There is no clear anti-incumbency wave. The result could eventually depend on voter turnout. If Modi’s response to Gandhi’s comment works, then the elections, at least the first phase, which begin today, will see a big turnout. According to poll pundits, based on electoral trends and rapidly shifting ground realities, a 50% turnout means curtains for Modi and 55%, means a close shave, but a victory.
If the turnout is 60%-plus then get set, whether you love him or hate him, for another five years of Modi.