As the first phase of the campaign for Gujarat drew to a close, the BJP’s attempts to project Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remark about Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a casteist slur, as an insult to the “son of Gujarat” and as humiliation of the entire state, had an unintended effect. Aiyar called the PM a “neech kisam ka aadmi”. The BJP’s hectic effort to gather outrage around the provocative comment highlighted the fact that so far, the campaign for the state has seemed more fragmented than before, something that should arguably worry the BJP more than its rival, the Congress. This is because the BJP has, since the 1990s, worked for, and benefited from, a grand consolidation of votes — in the name of Hindutva, “Gujarati asmita (pride)” and/or the “Gujarat model”, or simply the persona of Modi, chief minister for four consecutive terms and now PM. The Congress, on the other hand, has tried, mostly listlessly and ineffectually, to chip away at the BJP block, by raising local governance issues, or by using caste. So far in this election, however, it can be said that the Congress has looked far more energetic, and the BJP’s citadel has seemed much more breached.
For the BJP, anti-incumbency in a state it has politically dominated and ruled for over two decades now, is taking many names. There is Dalit unrest, symbolically centred in Una, which has thrown up a young leader called Jignesh Mevani. There is the long-running anger and turbulence among the Patidars, who, feeling taken for granted by the BJP, and let down by the “Gujarat model” of development, have been demanding a slice of the quota in government jobs under the leadership of Hardik Patel. There is farmer distress in the rural areas of the state and discontent over the implementation of the GST especially in the small and medium businesses in the cities. And the abiding alienation of the Muslims from a regime that has relegated them to near invisibility. Of course, despite the Congress showing greater vigour than it has done earlier, led by a remarkably sustained pitch by its president-elect Rahul Gandhi, discontents with the BJP may not quite add up in favour of the Congress. There are contradictions within — as between the Patidars and the OBCs, for instance — which could work in local contexts to foil a coming together of the splinters of the BJP vote bank.
The contest for Gujarat is especially resonant. From this state, political themes and mobilisations have spread to the rest of the country — corruption was the issue in the 1970s, and the Hindutva rath took off from here in the 1990s. The current ripples over the language of political debate may well mask a deeper shift underway. Or it may be that Gujarat prefers to stay its course, after the shouting is done.