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Acche Din? Not for BJP's Gujarat campaign

December 11, 2017 10:08 IST

'This is a negative campaign, of slurs and fears.'
The BJP has no desire to fight a positive campaign as it did in 2014, on the issue of governance and achche din.'
'Where the BJP can use these tactics, it will,' says Aakar Patel.

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi on the campaign trail in his home state Gujarat. Photograph: PTI Photo
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi on the campaign trail in his home state Gujarat. Photograph: PTI Photo

Who would have thought that something Mani Shankar Aiyar said would become an issue, and perhaps THE issue, of a Gujarat election?

I certainly did not and nor do I think it is an issue of the size in Gujarat that people think outside it is.

When I heard about the scandalous remark, I checked my Gujarati dictionary, which translates 'neech' as 'dusht'.

 

The English translations are 'wicked', 'vile' and 'mean'.

Should Aiyar have used the word? No: Political debate, and all debate must be civil. But does it have a meaning that links it to caste? No.

The second thing is the issue of Modi's caste. The prime minister belongs to a very successful community called Ghanchi. These are people who run kirana stores, and also press oil and sell grain (and tea) from shops.

The word Modi itself means an individual who owns and runs the neighbourhood kirana store, and it has the same meaning as the name Gandhi.

The Ghanchi community is not seen as a backward caste by Gujaratis and it became a backward class, or OBC, only in 1999 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

And so, for many Gujaratis, the word 'neech' will not be an automatic link to caste abuse for the PM.

These are the reasons that I thought that the issue was overblown and would not be particularly effective as a campaign weapon.

Time will tell, though, of course, we will have no way of knowing specifically which issues led to a BJP win (and I expect the BJP to win, as I wrote in my previous column) and which were only hot air from the media.

The one story which I thought would be damaging when I heard about it was the matter of the Somnath register.

Subsequent reporting has shown that the story was not what it was made out to be, but certainly it would have interested many Gujaratis and they would have been concerned that Rahul Gandhi had chosen to be registered as a non-Hindu (which he hadn't). But that story is now history and the media interest has moved on.

Then there was the one about Aiyar comparing Rahul Gandhi's ascension as Congress president to that of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. He was apparently not quoted fully on the matter by many who subsequently commented on it, including me.

But he should have known that anything that brought in Gandhi and Aurangzeb would have been used by Modi, as it was. How effective was this?

Again, I do not think people decide whom to vote for one something like this but it gave the BJP the space to talk about the Congress rather than performance in a state it has ruled for two decades.

Before that the BJP leaked a report about a hospital that Ahmed Patel was a trustee in, had an employee or a former employee, who had been named a terrorism charge.

This was a bogus story in the sense that there was no link between Patel and the man accused.

It was pushed because the BJP usually profits from showing the Congress as being soft on terrorism, though the history and the data shows otherwise.

Then there was the story only a few days ago about Kapil Sibal, the Congressman who is also a laywer, asking the Supreme Court not to deliver the Babri Masjid case verdict till the 2019 election.

Modi had another opportunity to make the news cycles with ready made material provided to him. The Ayodhya matter, which made the BJP a national party and which is an issue which is politically dead, was again made deliberately prominent.

In the latest story to make the headlines the PM has levelled the allegation that Aiyar, who has confessed he has zero ability to keep his mouth shut, told the Pakistanis to take out a 'supari' on Modi. This is, of course, not true.

It is either the case that the prime minister really believes it, which is worrying, or is making something up because it helps him in an election, which is also worrying.

As can be seen, all or most of the major issues that have made the news cycle have been things that the BJP has introduced against the Congress, with media support.

This is a negative campaign, of slurs and fears.

The striking thing is that the BJP has no desire to fight a positive campaign as it did in 2014, on the issue of governance and 'achche din'.

This is unfortunate, but it is also the way politics is done on the subcontinent.

Where the BJP can use these tactics, it will. It is up to the Congress to think up its own issues that the media finds attractive enough to push.

And it is definitely up to the Congress to not make deliberate mistakes of the sort it has made in this election.

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own.

Aakar Patel