A BJP leader from a North Indian hill state, who has spent several years in Gujarat, had this to say in a recent conversation recently. “Every election year, whether 2002, 2007, 2012 that I have been here, I have heard the same thing, that the BJP is going to find this election tough, but each time the BJP has come back stronger than ever. We have been going to small grocers, to the common man on the street — mind you, not in these clothes (he pointed to the kurta-churidar and vest he wore) but in a pant and shirt– and people tell us whatever the mahaul (atmosphere), they will vote for the BJP”.
So the question, who are the people crowding to listen to Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel, a 23-year old man with no political experience, no party backing and no eligibility to fight an election? Why is a Rahul Gandhi road show drawing large audiences? How are OBC and Dalit leaders, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani offering up alternatives and why are people considering them? The BJP apparently has no answers.
Certainly, the crowds thinned when Rahul abandoned the ‘Navsarjan Gujarat’ yatra for a few hours to look up the victims of the NTPC boiler blast in Rae Bareli. But there was no shooing away or shouting down of Gujarat Congress leaders when they filled in for him – unlike during the BJP’s Gaurav yatra last month, where even one led by chief minister Vijay Rupani was disrupted.
The beginning of a stirring in the mahaul is evident.
From the time when all of Gujarat stood with the ban on the Aamir Khan-starrer ‘Fanaa’ in 2006 because he was backing Medha Patkar’s campaign for the rehabilitation of Narmada dam oustees, till today when the BJP has called for staying the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, ‘Padmavati,’ the mood in the state has changed considerably.
As Gandhi’s image metamorphoses from satirical memes and ‘Pappu’ jokes to that of a cool politician who is happy to answer personal questions on his life, including his bachelorhood, practices martial arts, loves his dog and is happy to climb 600 steps to the Chamunda mata temple in Chotila because work needs to be done on his election campaign, the BJP seems increasingly stuck with Bollywood’s most famous line, “Mere paas Modi hai.”
Over half the electorate in Gujarat is less than 40 years old. This means that most have grown up knowing only the BJP in government, of being told that building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, protection of Hindutva and treating the cow as mother is what the elected representative is elected for.
In the same time Gujarati youth have been exposed to prime minister Narendra Modi’s international showpiece, the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit and have repeatedly heard from him that wealth creation – even at the risk of partnering with beef-eating nations who follow both Christianity and Islam – is good for both Gujarat and India. And that “development” is synonymous with roads, bridges, and high rise buildings with shiny glass facades, lights, mobile phones, internet and bullet trains.
And now they are being told that a film that portrays a Hindu Rajput queen in an amorous relationship with a Muslim can cause riots, and impact election outcomes, never mind the fact that its maker is a Gujarati.
Meanwhile, a Patidar BJP leader from Ahmedabad, who worries about the turn his party’s narrative is taking cannot handle the conflicts in his own home. “My son tells me — ‘Who cares for KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) theories?’ He says, in his college a group of people hang out at a chai shop together, and never ask which caste they belong to. I am lost for an argument”. The BJP has also been blaming the Congress for polarizing the current election on the basis of caste. Deputy chief minister Nitin Patel, at a media briefing, pointed out Gujarat Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki was the son of Madhavsinh Solanki, the architect of KHAM mobilization, which helped Congress win elections in the 1980s by isolating Patels.
The political scene in Gujarat these days is torn between these two narratives in the BJP. Even as the BJP draws the battlelines by putting its commander-in-chief Modi right on the frontline, they are confronted by three youth leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Then there is Rahul Gandhi.
The conflict is between their versions of ‘vikas’, or development, is clear. One is defined by a 67-year old RSS man who grew up in Vadnagar in north Gujarat helping his father run a tea shop, and went on to become prime minister, his campaign rhetoric dominated by bullet trains, ferries, roads, dams and bridges, digitization and “nationalism”. The other is showcased by a 47-year old Congressman born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who talks and talks about GST, demonetization, jobs, free speech, land and farming rights, affordable health, education and a whole lot of philosophy.
As the battle plays out, it is clear that for the BJP the candidate is inconsequential, because the prime minister’s reputation is at stake. For the Congress, on the other hand the candidate is key, since Rahul cannot be chief minister.
The Gujarati voter is resilient. A year after the worst earthquake in 2001, followed by the communal riot in 2002, both claiming over 13,000 lives and impacting businesses, Gujarat voted the BJP back to power with the highest number of seats ever. That was 15 years ago.
Today, one year after demonetisaton and a few months after GST, Gujaratis are a worried people. They are still weighing the balance and wondering if they should seek “parivartan”, or change, after 25 years or so, or continue to trust known faces. The coming days and weeks will demonstrate which way they will turn.