Criss-crossing the state of Gujarat over the past week to give readers of this column the real flavour of the high-profile and bitterly contested Gujarat assembly election, I got the impression that there is no contest at all in Gujarat and that Narendra Modi is likely to win a landslide victory—much like he did in the last assembly polls. But there is a significant contrast in the electoral scenario at the micro, constituency levels, where the Congress seems to pose a bit of a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At the macro level, this election is perceived as a referendum on Modi’s performance over the last five years. The overwhelming verdict is in Modi’s favour. Gujaratis believe that Modi led the state with an unmatched integrity, dogmatic resoluteness and a commitment that is helping the state’s rapid progress. Even a sizeable section of traditional Congress voters want Modi to win. Amarsi Parmar, a driver by profession and a Congress voter in Nadiad, says: “I am a Congress voter but I want Modi to win. If he remains (chief minister) for another 10 years, Gujarat will prosper and become a model state.”
Despite the Congress’ best efforts in puncturing the development claims of Modi, its campaign is coming unstuck. Modi in all his public meetings pits five years of his rule—cleverly ignoring the fact that the BJP has been in power in the state for last 12 years—against the 45 years of the Congress rule and the crowd instantly gives him a thumbs up for the comparison.
Modi’s unique selling point is his incorruptible image. It is difficult to find even a handful of ordinary voters who question his personal integrity. He exploits this reputation to the hilt by reminding the voters in every speech with a punch line delivered in filmi style, “Hun khato nathi, khaba deto nathi (I don’t eat [take bribes], nor do I let anyone else take bribes),” and gets a rapturous response from the crowd. In a state where nothing gets done without money, being ‘honest’ is the ultimate virtue for a politician.
Is Sonia Gandhi’s provocative remark that the state is ruled by “merchants of death” a politically imprudent statement, or is it the party’s decision, having realized that it cannot win Gujarat, to deny Modi a victory on the plank of development?
In either case, Sonia’s secular claims ring horribly hollow, for the Congress party is seeking the support of every estranged section of the BJP and familial outfits in the state to mount a challenge against Modi.
At another level, this election is being fought on local issues, involving caste- and candidate-specific factors. Even as the political wind is blowing the BJP way, the party is finding the going tough in a number of constituencies for a variety of reasons—caste, sabotage by the party’s estranged leaders and cadres, poor performance of some MLAs, or weak candidates.
It is not the overemphasized Keshubhai (Patel, a former BJP chief minister of the state) factor that is at work. He is a spent force and wields little influence even in his home district, Rajkot. The rape and killing of a girl, Chandni, belonging to the numerically strong Koli community, in Junagarh a few months ago and the failure of the state government to catch the culprits have snowballed into an electoral issue.
Modi is not fighting the Congress in Gujarat. He is fighting a powerful line-up of forces that include the BJP’s disgruntled leaders and cadres, estranged Hindutva proponents, the influential diamond lobby, a vicious national and local media, troubled government employees and the like.
A public speaker par excellence, Modi works magic with his words and mesmerizes his audiences with his powerful oratory. Much unlike what the media would like you to believe, a large part of his speeches is devoted to development and governance. Invariably, he gets a thunderous response for his developmental claims.
With her ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchants of death) remark, Gandhi has breathed oxygen into Modi’s campaign for the combination of development and Hindutva is a lethal mix and has combustible potential. She has handed Modi an opportunity to unite his estranged cadres and silent supporters on the issue of Hindutva. The combative leader that he is, he has taken the Election Commission’s notice (on comments he allegedly made in his part about the death of a Muslim in a police encounter which is now being investigated) in his stride and has picked up the gauntlet thrown by the Congress.
If the Gujarat election proves to be a referendum on Modi’s government and his leadership—he is trying hard to make it that—it may hand him a big win with a tally of more than 115 seats in the 182-member assembly. On the other hand, if the votes are cast entirely on local, caste and candidate specific factors—that is how this election campaign began—this election could go down to the wire.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org