Over the last few weeks, at several places in Ahmedabad, huge saffron billboards have come up saying: “Aabhar Narendrabhai” in large Gujarati font, each with a huge picture of prime minister Narendra Modi, juxtaposed with that of a school student or the Narmada dam or the bullet train or a man sweeping the roads, “thanking” Modi for “completing” the Narmada project or for bringing drinking water to the villages and various other projects that Modi has laid the foundation of, inaugurated, announced or dedicated to the nation in the last couple of months.
As the countdown to the assembly elections begins in Gujarat, scheduled for December, it seems as if the Prime Minister is a worried man, left with little time to win back a bank of votes presumably lost in the Patidar agitation, Dalit uprising, demonetization and now the GST debacle. Since mid-September when Gujarat hosted Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, the state has been spellbound by lights, cameras and convoys. Soon after Modi returned to celebrate his birthday in his home state. For the third time in the last four weeks he was back this weekend, ostensibly to mark the anniversary of the time he was first sworn in as chief minister of Gujaratin 2001.
But the worry lines on the BJP’s brow are not going unnoticed. A social media campaign going by the hashtag ‘Vikas gando thayo chhe’ (development has gone mad)’s memes, cartoons and spoofs on the BJP’s development plank have forced chief minister Vijay Rupani, and even Modi on this tour, to react. For a party which thrives on social media, it was ironical that party president Amit Shah had to warn young people at a town hall meeting last month to“apply your minds before falling for everything that came on Whatsapp”.
The party’s general secretary in charge of Gujarat Bhupendra Yadav has been camping in the state for the last few months. Union ministers are flying in frequently, and a team of Modi’s top ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Arun Jaitley, with the busiest portfolios – defence and finance– have been put in charge of Gujarat’s elections. The prime minister is due to visit Gujarat again after a week to conclude the Gaurav Yatra, a pan-Gujarat rally he curated after the 2002 riots in which nearly 1200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. That edition of the Gaurav Yatra is best remembered for Modi’s vitriolic speeches targeting the minorities.
The Gaurav Yatra’s second edition, which began October 1, is slated to cover 150 of the state’s 182 constituencies, a victory target the BJP set for itself in Gujarat after the Uttar Pradesh win earlier this year.
In many ways, the coming Assembly election compares with the one in 2002. Back then the BJP’s challenge was to turn the communally polarised Gujarat in its favour. Today there is a clear caste agenda in the way political parties are reorganising their systems and strategies. The challenge for the BJP is to win back its loyal vote bank, the Patidars, especially the middle class among them, who feel they have been left out of the development agenda. The Congress in 2002 had carpet-bombed Gujarat with six chief ministers and several national leaders to campaign, yet the BJP won 127 seats, its highest so far. Unlike 2002 when Modi’s Gaurav yatra speeches drove the crowds into a frenzy, this time the reactions are much mellow. At the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IIT-G), on Saturday when he remarked about his not being an “IITian” but a “Tea-ian, a chai bechnewala, the crowd of students hardly responded with the enthusiasm he thought they would. The PM crisply commented that young people weren’t as sharp as he had thought they were.
Truth is, there’s no early Diwali, at least in Gujarat, as Modi announced in Dwarka over the weekend because of the revised GST rates. Textile businessmen in Surat are still not happy as relaxations in GST will cover only very small traders and not those with annual turnovers of over Rs two crore. The criticality of the Aadhar card for businesspeople, even to get a mobile phone number, is also worrying the common Gujarati.The absence of excitement in the jewellery and textile markets, a week before Dhanteras, which marks the beginning of the biggest Gujarati festival of Diwali, indicates a slump and a paler festival.
Although the Gujarat government under Rupani’s charge is bending over backwards to please Patidars and farmers, announcing investigations into the assault on some Patidars, higher MSPs for farmers and so on, Modi’s silence on the issues dogging Dalits, Patidars and small traders in his home state, especially when he has chosen to lead the campaign from the front, can be damaging.
Besides, party president Amit Shah seems to be in some trouble over media reports that the business fortunes of his son Jay rose nearly 16000 times since Modi became PM. The Congress has wasted no time and demanded a probe into Jay Shah’s firm Temple Enterprises and its dealings. The possibility that Shah will have little time left to strategise for his party’s victory exists, or at least that is what the Congress hopes. The fact that the BJP has already brought the Nationalist Congress Party on its side and decided to bring ex chief minister Anandiben Patel out of her unceremonious retirement, are other straws in the wind.
A top BJP leader says that the party is actually taking some pages out of the Congress’s book. “This time we plan to work on the ‘silent voters’. The strategy Jhinabhai Darji (late Congress leader) made ahead of the Congress’s stupendous win in 1985 was exemplary”, he said, indicating that the BJP would work on a similar consolidation now with Patidars turning against it.
In 1985 the Congress had won 149 of the 182 seats under chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki which became the basis of Darji and Solanki’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance to consolidate votes of the non-Patidar communities. While laying the foundation of the Okha-Beyt Dwarka cable stayed bridge and other highway projects, on Saturday, Modi mocked Solanki’s photos appearing on the front page of newspapers inaugurating a water tank in Jamnagar, when he was chief minister.
Today, with Gujarat being swamped with a hamper of birthday and pre-Diwali “goodies ” which includes a Bullet train, a train for Surat’s migrants, swanky bridges, the Narmada dam, barrages, dairies, icecream factories, marketing yards, medical colleges and highways, the BJP’s rank and file have begun to complain of fatigue. They say they haven’t had a day’s rest since 2014, having to mobilize crowds for political and government functions.
Question is, as Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi chalks out a carefully curated bus yatra across Gujarat, will the BJP be compelled to pause, take note and react?