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Home > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai

BJP on a downswing in Gujarat

December 14, 2007

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If there's one thing on which most of Gujarat's politicians, social scientists, civil society activists, bureaucrats, and public-spirited citizens agreed a month ago, it was the dead certainty of the Bharatiya Janata Party's victory in the assembly election.

The BJP would inevitably romp to power -- for the fourth time. Its entrenched position in Gujarati society, Hindutva's appeal, and Chief Minister Narendra Modi's [Images] strong leadership would ensure this. If there was any question-mark at all, it was over the margin of the win, not the win itself.

The tide seems to have turned. Today, the very same people will tell you, the BJP could lose the election. What seemed unthinkable only weeks ago could actually happen.

The Congress ran a remarkably timid campaign, skirted all issues pertaining to the terrible communal violence of 2002, always looked uneasy while countering the BJP's 'Gujarat Gaurav' campaign, and didn't gather the nerve to put up more than half-a-dozen Muslim candidates in a state where 20 Muslim legislators used to get elected. But it might yet get catapulted into power.

All exit polls after the first phase of voting in 87 constituencies (of Gujarat's total of 182) point to a vote-swing away from the BJP. An NDTV poll in 86 constituencies forecasts a loss of 13 seats for the BJP, placing it behind the Congress by 3 seats. Plausibly, the trend might get strengthened in the second phase.

A BJP defeat in Gujarat will deliver the party a seismic political and organisational shock and mark a historic setback for the entire Sangh Parivar. Lal Kishenchand Advani's laughable anointment as the party's prime ministerial candidate won't mitigate, but aggravate, the shock. In terms of power, the setback will of course be much lesser than the BJP's rout in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

But ideologically, the setback will be far more severe. It will have proved that divisive politics based on religious hatred, which rejects pluralism and secularism, is not sustainable even in the most favourable of conditions. Gujarat, after all, was "Hindutva's laboratory".

On December 23, we'll get to know how the BJP has fared. But it's worth noting that estimates by state civil servants and intelligence agencies of its likely tally vary from 70 to 80, way, way below its 2002 score of 127 seats. Even the state BJP's internal assessment is reportedly that it's sure to win only 63 seats. Optimistically, it could at best win another 15. But even then, it would still fall short of a majority.

Assuming that the estimates conform broadly to reality, how and why has this change come about? Even if the BJP does not get routed in the election, what can explain the downturn in its prospects and its likely reduced share of the vote?

Four broad factors seem to have been at work: recent shifts in the BJP's social support-base; reassertion of what may be called normal or mundane politics vis-�-vis ideology- or personality-driven politics; major changes in intra-Sangh Parivar relations; and Modi's intensely personalised and confrontationist election campaign.

To start with, the long expansion of the BJP's social base in Gujarat seems to have come to an end. During the period stretching from the anti-Babri mosque movement to the massacre and beyond in 2002, the BJP managed to split the Congress party's traditional base among Gujarat's "core minorities", comprised of Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims, and among subaltern but numerous layers like the Kolis, who form about one-fifth of the state's population.

Thanks to the appeal of militant Hindutva, the BJP attracted a significant proportion of votes from the first two groups in 2002. Using the state machinery, it browbeat and effectively disenfranchised Muslims and prevented them from voting against it.

However, over the past year or longer, not only are these groups returning to the Congress; the BJP has suffered a severe erosion of support amongst Kolis, and even more important, among the prosperous and politically powerful Leuva Patels, who wield a great deal of clout in Saurashtra and Kutch (which elect almost a third of Gujarat's MLAs).

These shifts in social base can eliminate the small 3 percentage-point vote lead that the BJP enjoyed over the Congress in the 2004 Parliamentary elections, itself down from 10 points in 2002. Indeed, they can even give the Congress the upper hand. This seems to be happening in Saurashtra and the southern tribal belt, and also in parts of central and northern Gujarat.

It's only among urban upper caste-upper class Hindus that the BJP enjoys firm, unshakable support. And although Gujarat is India's most urbanised state, with 40 per cent of its population living in cities, the upper-crust elite is too small to ensure electoral success.

Second, Modi has concentrated all power in his own hands and tried to demolish normal, routine or mundane politics based on deal-making and patronage. He has consistently bypassed the party organisation and the Sangh Parivar, and barred not just opposition leaders, but even senior BJP functionaries, from establishing access to himself. He has tried to stamp a distinctly authoritarian Moditva imprint upon the state and all its programmes.

Modi's calculation was that the combined banner of Gujarat's asmita (self-esteem or glory), "development" and "Vibrant Gujarat" would work magically. But the asmita slogan couldn't  cover up chasms in Gujarat's society, nor the prevailing sleaze.

"Development" got reduced to mere "GDP-ism" or worship of growth without inclusion. And "Vibrant Gujarat" is going exactly the way "India Shining" did in 2004 -- exposing the BJP to popular scorn and ridicule for celebrating elite-oriented, highly dualistic growth.

Reality is now catching up with Moditva. In the absence of a communally charged atmosphere, Hindutva has become irrelevant to the public's mood and its voting choices. "Normal politics" and mundane issues of survival and governance, like high electricity bills and a wilting Bt-Cotton crop, are chipping away at the artificial edifice Modi tried to construct out of the tacky slogans of "Gujarat's glory", and tall claims about investment and industrialisation.

As this Column noted seven weeks ago, Gujarat's is a case of unbalanced growth and warped development. It's falling behind other large states in gender, health and environment indices. As many as 74 per cent of Gujarat's women and 47 per cent of its children are anaemic. Gujarat's infant mortality and malnutrition rates remain stubbornly high, especially in the rural areas.

Gujarat's indices of patriarchy are frightening. The sex-ratio is an abysmal 487:1000 in the 0-4 age-group and 571 in the 5-9 group (national averages, 515 and 632). Gujarat's health indices have been declining and are barely higher than Orissa's. In social sector spending (as a proportion of public expenditure), Gujarat ranks Number 19 among India's 21 major states.

Modi's claims about abundant electricity supply are belied by facts. The Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy says the Gujarat's power deficit averaged 10.7 per cent and peaked at 23.7 per cent in the past year.

Given the rising weight of these issues, the Congress has succeeded in putting Modi on the mat on the "development" agenda.

A third adverse factor for Modi is serious infighting in the Gujarat BJP, where more than 40 "rebels" are contesting against the official candidates or engineering their defeat. Worse, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and other Sangh front organisations have decided not to help the BJP.

Absence of door-to-door campaigning by RSS pracharaks will deliver a major blow to the BJP, especially in the cities. No less significant will be the absence of canvassing by the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram in the tribal areas. The synergy these groups generated together was crucial to the BJP' victory in past elections. Now some of them will work against it -- a double whammy, which could cause great damage.

Finally, Modi has run a sectarian, foul and demagogic campaign, which used every conceivable low-level tactic. But he has still failed to attract large audiences. No other BJP leader has got a worthwhile public response either. By contrast, top Congress leaders' rallies were well-attended. Although the Congress's election campaign was weak on secularism and social justice, it managed to corner Modi on governance and development issues.

In response, a desperate Modi played the anti-Muslim card. He shamelessly justified the cold-blooded murder of Sohrabuddin Shaikh in a "fake encounter", and maligned Muslims. This blatantly violated the Election Commission's Code of Conduct, which prohibits hate speech and vilification of any religious group. It was an implicit and shocking admission of the state's complicity in the murder. Ironically, this will only encourage Muslims to go out and vote.

The Election Commission rightly took note of this grave electoral malpractice. Sadly, to appear "even-handed", it also issued notice to Sonia Gandhi [Images] for her "merchants of death" speech.

But the two speeches aren't even remotely comparable. The EC must correct this error of judgment and severely punish Modi. But what Modi most richly deserves is political punishment. Gujarat's electorate should send him packing.


Praful Bidwai




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