In the final leg of the ‘Gaurav Yatra’ in Gujarat last week, BJP chief ministers from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, respectively, picked on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for the way he conducted himself in Hindu temples, and how he knew nothing about Ram or Krishna. The bored crowd failed to respond to the insinuation that the Congress leader, a “foreigner,” could hardly be trusted to rule India, a telling comment of how in these parts of Gujarat at least, the space for Hindutva has shrunk in the 15 years since the first edition of the Gaurav Yatra in 2002 which took place in the wake of the Gujarat riots.
At the finale of the yatra on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly swung the agenda back to development declaring that 2017 would be a Vikasvaad (development) vs Vanshvaad (dynasty) fight, fiercely hitting out at the Nehru-Gandhi family, the very day when the Gujarat Pradesh Congress passed a resolution to support Rahul as successor to Sonia Gandhi as party president.
In a throwback to 2012, when Modi had fought the election largely on the issue of “Gujarati asmita” (Gujarati identity), at the gathering of “page pramukhs” of the BJP (a term coined for those in charge of each page of the electoral roll) he blamed the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for not giving Gujarati leaders their due space in national politics – and added Morarji Desai and Madhavsinh Solanki to the list which has always had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on the very top. However, empty chairs in the gathering under the blazing sun at Bhat village in Gandhinagar, where seven lakh cutting edge party workers were expected to listen to Narendra Modi, their most popular leader, a different story.
Fifteen years after being in power with the Congress still a blip on the radar, Modi, on his fourth visit to Gujarat in a month on Monday was already planning his next trip back home, unabashedly announcing the “New Year gift” of the roll-on, roll-off ferry service he would launch from Ghogha port in Bhavnagar, to Dahej in Surat. Technical glitches have been delaying the project, which is set to benefit mainly the diamond and textile traders, largely Patidars from Bhavnagar and Amreli who are settled in Surat.
Modi had performed the ground-breaking ceremony for this ferry service in 2012 – the last assembly elections he fought, more as a prime ministerial candidate, than as chief minister.
Now, as prime minister, he is trying to also fit back into the boots he had hung up three years ago. In Vadodara, projects worth nearly Rs 800 crore that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was to inaugurate on Sunday, were fit into Modi’s upcoming state tour itinerary.
Modi tore into the Nehru-Gandhi family, blaming them for “spreading stories” about what Morarjibhai “drank or did not drink”, an oblique reference to the former prime minister’s urine therapy (which he himself had gone public about), blamed the Gandhis for “forcing “ Madhavsinh Solanki to quit as external affairs minister to protect “the family” from the Bofors scam, and called the Congress a party run by “ma-beta” out on bail (referring to the National Herald case), the “likes” on Facebook flowed in as the rally went live on social media.
Until Modi touched the raw GST nerve and switched from Hindi to Gujarati to explain how the tax decision was not his alone and that his Union government was “only the thirtieth voice” in the list of state chief ministers (18 of 29 states are ruled by BJP). Textile and other small traders in Gujarat have been upset at the GST rate and its slabs and have lost huge businesses during their month-long protest strike. On Facebook, as the prime minister spoke on Monday, the tiny red emojis depicting anger were crawling all over the live BJP page, indicating that the problem was not over yet.
If Modi’s following on Twitter is a measure of his popularity, the BJP ought to be worried about these little saffron emojis. It should also worry about the tiny videos under the “VikasGandoChhe” hashtag that launched on the internet soon after the Monday rally comparing Modi’s take on GST, fuel prices, essential commodities during the Congress-led UPA regime and now.
Meanwhile, between Modi’s last visit and this one, the BJP at least seemed to be taking Rahul Gandhi more seriously. No less a leader than Chief Minister Rupani’s wife, Anjali led a group of women to burn his effigy in Rajkot to protest his “ever seen women in shorts in the RSS shakhas?” remark in Vadodara, where Gandhi had also spoken about “never wishing the annihilation of the BJP”.
As Rahul purports his Gujarat campaign as “conversations,” be it with party workers on the Sabarmati river front – which he carried out in early September walking up and down a stage, microphone in hand, taking questions from Congressmen — or with the general public, as he did in the last two roadshows, fewer Gujaratis are laughing at Modi’s jokes on Rahul.
The soon-to-be Congress president has stirred up questions on jobs, GST, demonetisation, privatisation of education, farm loans and the Tata Nano car, that has buried issues like Hindutva or cow protection and prohibition laws, compelling Rupani to announce interest-free farm loans at the Monday rally and list out how Gujarat topped in “employment”, “fisheries”, “vehicle registrations”, “MSMEs”, and “cold storages” as indicators of development.
In the curtain raiser to the Gujarat elections, both Modi and Rahul are, of course, preparing the stage for the general elections in 2019. One thing is clear, though. The stakes for Modi’s BJP are much higher than the Congress in the coming Gujarat election, because it has already staked its claim to winning 150 seats, a three-fourth majority in the Assembly, and up from the 116 seats it has today. But if the Congress can give Modi a real fight in this Gujarat battle, it will be enough to charge up its despondent workers. Meanwhile, with Hardik Patel also in the fight against the BJP, the battle for Gujarat just got more interesting.