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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Gabbar Singh fires up Gujarat, even as Modi rains down sops in his home state

As Modi, the BJP’s lone star campaigner in Gujarat, tries to explain that the GST was not “his decision alone” – it was the Congress party whose idea it was in the first place – goes on to assure traders that their old account books will not be investigated.

Written by Leena Misra | Updated: October 25, 2017 12:55:02 pm
Gujarat, Narendra Modi, Gujarat assembly elections 2017, Gujarat polls, gabbar singh, Election commission, EC Gujarat poll dates, GST, Goods and services tax, Rahul gandhi, BJP, Congress, In 2002, the Modi government had reportedly directed its intelligence officials to tap then Gujarat Congress chief Shankersinh Vaghela’s phone, as was subsequently revealed by retired IPS officer, RB Sreekumar. (File photo)

Forty two years after he fired up Hindi cinema, the curly-haired, surly and burly villain in olive green pants and open shirt, gun in hand and a mocking pan-stained grin, has briefly fired up the virtual political space in Gujarat.

As Gujaratis struggle to find the “good and simple tax” that prime minister Narendra Modi promised to bring into force on the midnight of June 30 when GST came into being, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s  “Gabbar Singh Tax” jibe in the state’s capital Gandhinagar has struck a surprising chord.

Gandhi’s GST has in the last 48 hours inspired memes, jokes and much traction on Facebook and Twitter, pushing the BJP in Gujarat to act on the ground. The leadership has reacted by immediately waiving the 18 per cent GST on micro-irrigation systems for farmers, longer maternity leave for contractual employees and and much greater benefits for social health workers. Sure, all of these were direly needed, but on the eve of the all-important Gujarat election, the BJP has made full use of the breather given to it by the Election Commission’s model code of conduct to announce this string of sops.

The filmi excitement hasn’t ceased, though. Ashok Gehlot, the Congress leader in charge of Gujarat, has accused the BJP government of snooping on him after CCTV camera grabs, purportedly of Hardik Patel in an Ahmedabad five-star hotel, have been playing on a loop on TV and social media. Certainly, this has sparked immense curiosity, with many guessing games beginning with “What’s going on?” and ending with bets on a possible alliance between Rahul Gandhi and Hardik Patel.

While the hotel has admitted that the police sought the tapes “because of VVIP movement,” there is no explanation as to how the tapes were shared with TV channels.

A senior BJP leader defended the party, but he seemed to be on thin ground. “Look, he (Hardik) met Rahul Gandhi, it is very clear from the tapes, then what is the big secret? Why is the Congress hiding?”

Snooping is certainly not new to Gujarat or to the BJP. In 2002, the Modi government had reportedly directed its intelligence officials to tap then Gujarat Congress chief Shankersinh Vaghela’s phone, as was subsequently revealed by retired IPS officer, RB Sreekumar. In 2013, another DGP Jogeshwar Mahapatra had suggested that the intelligence wing under him had snooped on Sanjay Joshi, senior BJP leader and bête noire of Modi.

Not sure of the unflinching  support it has always received from the Patidar community anymore, the BJP has been trying to revive a modified KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) coalition that once so successfully brought the Congress to power, by hoping to consolidate OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis — minus Muslims, of course. But if these caste and tribal leaders ally with the BJP, then there could be a disruption in the math.

What is worrying the BJP much more are the large crowds of young people turning up at rallies by these leaders – especially Patidar quota stir leader Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, to listen to the other side of vikas (development). Both these leaders have not only brought up the 2002 riots once again, but also GST, demonetization and the anti-drinking law. Significantly, they have been able to draw the crowds without any open political branding or godfather.

As prime minister Modi, the BJP’s lone star campaigner in Gujarat, tries hard to explain to his people that GST was not “his decision alone” – it was the Congress party whose idea it was in the first place, he has been saying – goes on to assure traders who have joined the new tax regime that their old account books will not be investigated, and finally warns those against ‘vikas’ that they won’t get a single penny from the Centre, Rahul Gandhi’s jibes are getting more traction in the political space.

With almost 30 per cent of the electorate in the 18-35 age group in Gujarat, the change of tack in Gandhi’s outreach in Gujarat has forced BJP president Amit Shah to extend his stay in the state and compelled Modi to make frequent visits.

But the truth is that a party which prides itself in discipline and organization, is struggling to defend itself against allegations of bribery by a PAAS member whom it inducted the very day Modi was in Gujarat inaugurating the Ro Ro ferry service. Narendra Patel the PAAS convenor of Mehsana, three hours after he joined BJP, went before the media with bundles of notes, allegedly worth Rs 10 lakh, saying this was bribe money given to him by BJP to join up.

Notwithstanding all the action, the Congress is yet to find a Gabbar Singh or a Thakur for Gujarat.

The BJP is instilling an army-like regimentation in its ranks, training booth soldiers, having its tallest leader (Modi) address workers, etc. As for the Congress, it only just seems to have found a new star campaigner getting his lines right.

Leena Misra is working with The Indian Express as the Resident Editor of Gujarat.

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