On the surface, Gujarat 2022 looks, in the words of a BJP leader, a “neeras (colourless)” election. A Congress leader agreed that everything about it is “anmana (indifferent)”. There is no wave, even though the BJP seems set to win — its workers not fired by the enthusiasm they have shown in the past.
The Congress, which should have been upbeat, having come close to defeating the BJP in 2017, displays a fatigue. This when many, including BJP leaders, said this was the Congress’s election to take “101 taka” — if only it had got its act together and projected an effective leader. Today, many can’t even name who is its party chief or leader in the state Assembly.
The state’s election history has been far more eventful, setting national trends. It was KHAM, an experiment in skilful social engineering, bringing together OBCs, Harijans, Adivasi and Muslims, which won the Congress a heady victory in 1985 — and was a precursor for Mandal that followed five years later.
An anti-reservation movement which acquired a Hindu-Muslim profile also foreshadowed what was to follow nationally — the BJP came to power in the state in 1995.
The post-Godhra election in 2002 and 2007 consolidated the Hindus behind Narendra Modi and he added “vikas” to his agenda — a trend he was to follow at the national level.
Today, hurt by rising prices and economic distress, many talk about the need for “badlav”, some openly, others cautiously.
How this plays out depends on the unanswered question in Gujarat 2022: is there an undercurrent for the political newbie, Aam Aadmi Party?
So far, Gujarat has been a bipolar state and not really shown an appetite for a third force.
Voices from the ground, however, indicate that many of those who want “change” today are looking at AAP — and see it as a force of the future. A paanwala in the old city of Ahmedabad says: “I want change and even if my vote is wasted, I will vote for Kejriwal this time.” In Morbi, the Dalit cobbler sitting outside a restaurant, whose customers all say they are for the BJP, looks right and left three times and almost whispers: “I am going to vote for Kejriwal.” Or the Rabari farmer outside Rajkot: “Kejriwal has done all this in Delhi, why should we not try him here?” Or in Chotilla, the 80-year-old Koli Patel farmer, a Congressman all his life, who has joined the AAP.
These voices may not constitute empirical evidence but they are straws in the wind. That many among the lower classes and lower castes are looking at the AAP with favour — attracted by its promise of free bijlee and other welfare measures which he has delivered in Delhi and in Punjab.
Interestingly enough, when talking about the AAP, people refer more to “Kejriwal” than to his party. Arvind Kejriwal, though not a Gujarati, has already become a recognised name in the villages of Gujarat. A fast learner from Modi, the guarantee cards he is using for free bijlee and other freebies — they look like visiting cards with Kejriwal’s photograph on them – are a clever marketing technique to engage with the people.
It goes without saying that the more the AAP can wean away traditional supporters of the Congress, the safer it gets for the BJP. But then the AAP is also picking up support from those considered the vote bloc of the BJP — the distressed small entrepreneur, unhappy government servant, change-seeking urban youth and the first-time voter.
It is clear — and many articulated this in Gujarat — there are three words which insulate the BJP from defeat today: these are “Narendra Damodardas Modi”.
Being in power for 27 uninterrupted years, and this is likely to touch 32 if the BJP retains power in Gandhinagar, is no small achievement.
“I am 40 years old, and I have no memory of what it was like under a Congress government, even though my mother was with the Mahila Congress here,” says Prakaram Rana, a Kshatriya, in Limdi in Saurashtra.
It’s not just (about) Hindutva, or nationalism. “Woh toh bachcha bachcha bhi jaanta hai, you don’t have to say it. My son wears a Modi muffler to school,” he adds.
The still-to-be-fully-understood Modi phenomenon is more than that. It’s also about “bharosa (trust)”. People say Modi does what he says he will do, “like building the Ram temple, or scrapping Article 370”. Many admire Modi’s “24×7” hard work, the fact that he has no family to leave things for; his making India proud in the global community, and “now heading the G-20”.
As in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, where the voter appreciated the improved law-and-order situation, many in Gujarat today also talk about safety.
“Aaftab” has a resonance here. “We know about one Aaftab but there are many Aaftabs we don’t hear about.” “I have a 13-year-old daughter, she is, I feel, safe in Gujarat. We have not had a riot — or even a pathrav (stone-pelting) — in Gujarat in the last 20 years.” You hear many such voices.
Rapid urbanisation in Gujarat — 80 of 182 seats are urban — has also helped the BJP. Rising prices and joblessness are the main reasons for people’s growing disaffection but they have not been adequately stitched together in an overarching counter-narrative by the Congress.
In 1995, when the BJP had first come to power in Gujarat, the hand of prime minister PV Narasimha Rao was seen behind the revolt against the newly installed CM, Keshubhai Patel, led by Shankersinh Vaghela, in what was known as Operation Khajuraho.
Atal Behari Vajpayee cried at the party headquarters about the open wrangling for power in his party; L K Advani pointed to his collar and said, “There was a time when we could hold this high, today we cannot.” People began to talk about the “Congressisation of the BJP”, no longer a “party with a difference”.
Rao, though “as charismatic as a dead fish”, had succeeded. The Congress does not have the Rao-kind of will for power here. It tends to function more like an NGO. The AAP is moving into the breach. That’s the message coming from Gujarat.
The challenge to the BJP is not in 2022. Come December 8, it is expected to form the government. “Remember, there were voices for change in Punjab in 2017, but the AAP got only 20 seats,” recalled a senior BJP leader. “But it was in the next elections (2022) in Punjab that Kejriwal got the whole state.”
Gujarat’s “neeras” election will decide whether Narendra Modi gets strengthened, in readiness for 2024 or he has to do a rethink — and a rebrand. The BJP would worry about the messaging coming its way from the ground. And the impact that the growing support for the AAP, irrespective of how many seats it wins, could have in 2024.