Why are so many people here?” I asked the panwala on Law Garden Road in Ahmedabad last week. There seemed chaos on CG Road. “E to Rahulbhai aavya chhe.” That was one of the more respectable ways of referring to Rahul Gandhi I had come across in recent times. I tried to remember if I had heard this simple respect ordinarily given to any Gujarati in previous references to the man. Perhaps such occasions were few and far between. It takes some chutzpah to campaign for the Congress in Gujarat, and clearly a set of conditions in recent times has made this possible — the dissatisfaction regarding GST among trader communities; the travails caused by demonetisation, the rising prices, the Patidar agitation, the atrocities on Dalits and the overall challenge posed by three new actors. All this has provided to an almost moribund Congress in Gujarat a window of possibility. Whether the rallies and meetings by Rahul Gandhi are well attended or not, and whether those attending them do so out of choice or enticement is an open matter, and the answer would differ depending on who you talk to. However, the sight of Rahul Gandhi drinking tea, dunking a biscuit, stopping by anywhere on the road has caused a dent, however small and insignificant, in the narrative of the BJP being in exclusive possession of Gujarat. Will the dent translate into real politics and actual numbers? Will the dent in the BJP’s narrative diminish its hubris, or will a turnaround happen in the forthcoming weeks? These are stirring questions.
It is difficult to predict the election outcome with any precision. In any case, that is not even within my purview. What we might do is to see what stories emerge at this point, and what mythologies are being created and sustained. A highly complex and granular field reinforces the view that democratic decisions are made in India out of a set of both highly localised and abstract notions, which will continue to elude an easy summarisation. For instance, is there a homogenous and stable Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, tribal view on Gujarat? Clearly not. The Muslim in the far corner of Banni in Kutch concerns himself with the local representation of the BJP, rather than its connection with 2002, as opposed to the Muslims of Ahmedabad and Vadodara, who are unlikely to forget the events that shaped their lives in tragic ways.
We also tend to forget that even the Congress in Gujarat has not been qualitatively different from the BJP: The “allegation” of it being pro-Muslim (a major theme in memes and videos) is laughable in the face of emerging research and critical memory. A memoir titled Agnipariksha based on the communal riots in Gujarat in 1969 recalls repeated calls for help to the then Congress chief minister by a riot-affected Muslim, but to no avail. Interestingly, those who claim to be ardent followers of the Congress and recognise the “post-truthness” of several achievements claimed by the BJP also concede to the power of “whitewashing” techniques that might influence decisions in the forthcoming weeks.
What they communicate in the process is that rhetoric has an alluring seduction that knowledge cannot control. An important lesson for us here is how myths can continue to persist despite evidence to the contrary through a process of rationalisation. Consequently, catastrophes are processed as minor inconveniences, only a move, as someone said from “kachcha kaam” (unaccounted transactions) to “pakka kaam” (billed transactions) with respect to the GST. Evidently there is enough privilege among the business communities to put aside this “inconvenience” and rationalise their preference for the BJP on the basis of an abstract idea of “threat from a Muslim”. The substantive and substantial “adjustment” Hindu businessmen have to do in business appears small in its comparison. The same economically privileged section provides a confident narrative on how the poor benefited from demonetisation by charging money for standing in queues outside banks and ATMs for the rich. On the other hand, the less privileged ones, especially the migrant labour from Rajasthan, have more pointed questions to ask on whether a toilet can be built with the meagre dole being currently offered. Their distance from urban Gujaratis provides to them some distance from dominant narratives, albeit they are not the ones who would be voting.
The denouement of this election is unlikely to surprise us. The only unpredictable element is in the details such as the exact number of seats won, margins and the performance of individual candidates. For now it may be important ask more enduring questions, such as how do human beings foreground disaffection, when do they rationalise or delegitimise their own suffering? Under what circumstances do they think their disaffection is a legitimate basis for a decision to cast vote? Do they think of the long-term effects or are they haunted by the memory of recent events? Election analyses are not going to address these issues because the instrumentalist desire to know who will win or lose obfuscates the magic of mythologies.
Meanwhile, I believe that the savarna, middle and upper-class Gujaratis rationalise the BJP’s “failures,” and the groundswell of dissatisfaction threatens to puncture the mythology without being able to combat it with alternative and more alluring myth. In that framework, the newfound Gods may have lost some lustre, enough to make a joke or two, or even tolerate one, but they have not ceased to be Gods. Gods can also make mistakes. Narendra Modi is not infallible for the people of Gujarat, but his reputation in many circles is untainted. He ranks for them alongside those who have been the custodians of Gujarat’s asmita — a frozen and unchanging concept, sealed against time and evidence.