A social media commentator has claimed to have analysed the recent election speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 29 rallies and found that Mr Rahul Gandhi got 621 mentions, the Congress 427 mentions and the Gujarat Model none! This may be an exaggeration or simply bad counting but it highlights an important aspect of the BJP’s campaign in Gujarat: the campaign is not about vikas (development) or achche din (good days). It has been about the alleged bad days of the Congress. One could not have encountered a more negative campaign from the ruling party.
The Congress was last in office in Gujarat in 1995. At the Centre, the Congress’s term ended in May 2014. The election in Gujarat is not about
Mr Rahul Gandhi or the Congress, it is about what successive BJP governments since 1995 have delivered to the people of Gujarat. It is about the present needs and anxieties and fears of the people of Gujarat.
Price Rise and Development
Available reports and evidence indicate that the top four issues on the minds of the voters of Gujarat are price rise (18 per cent), development (13), unemployment (11) and poverty (11). No one from the ruling party will speak on price rise. It was left to the Reserve Bank of India to frame the issue and address it, And this is what the RBI said on December 5, 2017: “Inflation may continue to accelerate in the near term… The recent rise in international crude oil prices may sustain… Any adverse supply shock due to geo-political developments could push prices up even further.”
For three years, the Central government reaped a windfall due to low crude oil prices but stubbornly refused to heed the demand to cut retail prices of petrol and diesel and give some relief to the consumers. The demand has got shriller, there is an obvious solution, but the government, given the state of its finances, is petrified. The obvious solution is to bring petroleum products under the GST. If I was a voter in Gujarat, I would vote for the party that promised to bring petroleum products under the GST and cut prices of petrol and diesel by at least Rs 10 per litre immediately.
No one from the ruling party will speak on development and, if they do, it will be about the Bullet Train, that 90 per cent of the people will never board. Or it will be about the Sardar Sarovar Dam, whose waters cannot be distributed to water-starved Saurashtra and other districts because the bulk of the canal network (30,000 km) has not been built in the last 22 years. No wonder the people of Gujarat say vikas gando thayo che. If I was a voter in Gujarat, I would vote for the party that promised to complete quickly the Sardar Sarovar canal network, build highways and all-weather roads, repair and maintain city roads, and construct airports in every region.
Unemployment and Poverty
No one from the BJP will speak on unemployment. The BJP will point to the low number of persons registered with employment exchanges. That is a self-goal. There is widespread unemployment and there is no hope that one will get a job by registering with employment exchanges. Add the fact that thousands of persons lost their jobs (in Gujarat and elsewhere) due to demonetisation and the throttling of small and medium enterprises by a flawed GST. It is not difficult to understand why thousands of youth are rallying behind Gujarat’s intrepid young leaders. If I was a voter in Gujarat, I would vote for the party that will fill the thousands of vacant posts in the government (and pay fair wages, not fixed amounts) and incentivise SMEs to grow and create jobs.
The BJP government in Gujarat has turned its back on the poor. How else can one explain the disappointing human development indicators or why Gujarat ranks behind many states in child health, literacy, sex ratio and per capita social sector expenditure? If I was a voter in Gujarat, I would vote for the party that will empathise with the poor and the middle class and pledge its time and resources to address their real problems irrespective of religion or caste.
Election and Accountability
I shall readily admit that the issues of development and jobs and price rise are common to all states. In the past too, ruling parties attempted to side-step the real issues, but wise voters changed the government, and with every election, the voters have become wiser.
The debate that the BJP wants to stir is on Hindutva, Ayodhya, personal laws, cow protection, hyper-nationalism and the fault lines in society. The Prime Minister, in his speeches, will invariably pick one or more of these subjects and make a remark that will become the headline of the day. The media will start a raucous debate. Thankfully, so far, no party has walked into that trap. They have remained focused on development and on the issues of jobs and price rise.
No one can predict the result of an election. Bihar went contrary to surveys, Uttar Pradesh went contrary to opinion polls. We can only hope that, for the sake of Gujarat and for the sake of better governance at the Centre in the next 16 months, the voters of Gujarat will remember that an election is the time to enforce accountability.