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'If Modi wins, he will stake claim for PM's post'

December 19, 2012 14:46 IST

Perhaps no state in India provokes as much political hysteria as Gujarat, which is in the process of holding elections for the 182 members of its state assembly. In a Q&A, Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, analyses what is at stake in the election ahead of the announcement of the results on Thursday.

Vaishnav argues that the Bharatiya Janata Party appears likely to win its third consecutive election in the state, although it faces newfound opposition from its traditional core supporters. The controversial and ambitious BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi will likely use his election victory as a springboard to national politics, but this could prove to be a double-edged sword for the party in parliamentary elections expected in 2014.

What is at stake in this election?

Since 2002, Gujarat has been ruled by the firm hand of Narendra Modi of the BJP, the national party espousing an ideology of Hindutva that led the country from 1998-2004 and that currently serves as the primary opposition party in New Delhi.

Modi is one of India's most divisive political figures -- celebrated by many for generating economic growth and attracting private investment to his state and detested by others as the worst manifestation of Hindu chauvinism in India for his controversial role in the horrific violence against Muslims in the state in 2002. The outcome of the 2012 election will help determine whether Modi can parlay his success in Gujarat into a more prominent position on the national stage in advance of 2014 parliamentary elections.

What are the dynamics going into this election and who are the major players?

The BJP has ruled Gujarat continuously since 1995 with the Congress serving as the primary opposition party. Yet the election scenario is a little different now than it was in 2007. A traditional two-party contest has become a three-way battle with the establishment of the Gujarat Parivartan Party, led by former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel.

Modi was instrumental in ousting Patel from the position of chief minister in 2001 and, in so doing, managed to get himself installed as Patel's successor. Patel has never forgiven Modi and his allies in the BJP hierarchy, but, until recently, this conflict was kept under wraps. This year, the rivalry between the two factions boiled over with Patel formally launching the GPP, his own breakaway party. Patel is seen as very close to the organisations that comprise the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations affiliated with the BJP, with which Modi has had a troubled relationship in recent years.

Modi is himself a product of the Sangh Parivar. Before joining electoral politics, he was deeply involved with the influential Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a prominent Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation, serving as a key pracharak (propagandist). Despite Modi's Hindutva credentials, the Sangh Parivar bridles at the chief minister's independence and his inclination to shine a spotlight on himself as an individual rather than the "movement" as a whole.

Over the past decade, Modi has been ruthless in sidelining potential political rivals or alternative power centres before they accumulate too much power in Gujarat. As a result, at the local level, there is a widespread perception that many of Sangh Parivar's rank and file are campaigning on behalf of the GPP rather than the BJP. The impact of the so-called Keshubhai factor is difficult to ascertain. It will most likely be confined largely to the sub-region known as Saurashtra in western Gujarat, where the Leuva Patels (the Hindu caste to which Patel belongs) reside in large numbers.

Analysts expect the GPP will win between five and seven seats with the possibility of significantly affecting the result in another 10 seats or so (turning two-way contests into three-way ones). In this context and with several additional candidates from smaller parties or running as independents, the winner in a first-past-the-post electoral system can get by with 25-30 per cent of the vote -- making electoral predictions very difficult.

For the Congress party, which dominated state politics before 1995, it looks as though the struggles in Gujarat will continue. It faces shortcomings on several fronts.

First, Congress has struggled to project an effective leader with statewide appeal. Its most recognisable Gujarati leader, Ahmed Patel, resides in Delhi, where he is a member of Parliament and doubles as one of the Congress leadership's top political troubleshooters. Second, the party apparatus in the state is badly fragmented, as amply demonstrated by the numerous defections the party suffered in the run-up to the election.

The most significant of these was the defection by former Congress Party deputy chief minister Narhari Amin, who resigned from Congress after being denied a party ticket and was promptly inducted into the BJP by Modi himself in a very public rally one week before voting began.

Amin's defection was less significant for its direct impact -- Amin himself had lost his last two electoral campaigns in the state in 2002 and 2007 -- than for its indirect impact on the party's image and morale among the party rank and file. Furthermore, despite his lack of recent electoral success, Amin remains popular among the Leuva Patel community, which the BJP desperately needs to win over if it is to successfully blunt the impact of the GPP.

What is the situation like on the ground in Gujarat?

First and foremost, when I was in Gujarat recently I was struck by the personalisation of politics that has taken place during Modi's tenure. This is truly difficult to overstate. The BJP's election campaign in the state has focused overwhelmingly on Modi the person rather than the party as a whole, with Modi himself encouraging voters to consider his personal contributions to the state.

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Modi's public relations campaign in the run-up to the elections was impressive and very professionally executed. From the billboards on the side of the road to the print and television ads to the creation of a 24/7 Narendra Modi television station, Modi's campaign is perhaps the closest approximation that I've seen to a US-style election campaign in India. The icing on the cake was Modi's 3-D technology to create "virtual" rallies at which his hologram image was simultaneously broadcast to 52 rallies across the state.

Given Modi's decade-long hold on power and his perceived autocratic tendencies, loyalty to Modi the man is pervasive throughout the state apparatus -- from the courts to the police to the elite levels of the bureaucracy. This provides Modi and, by extension, the BJP with an additional tool with which they can counter political opposition. Modi is perhaps the starkest example of an over concentration of power witnessed across Indian state capitals, whether it is with the chief minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa, or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.

I was also struck by the status of the Muslim minority, particularly in Ahmedabad where I spent much of my time. Muslims make up roughly nine per cent of the state's population and predominantly live in urban areas. In Ahmedabad, the segregation of Muslims is palpable. On the outskirts of the city, there is a Muslim ghetto called Juhapura, which is home to more than a quarter-million Muslim residents and is often referred to by locals as 'Little Pakistan'.

When locals travel from Juhapura to other sections of the city, they joke about 'crossing the border,' as if one were actually leaving Pakistan for India.

The area began to see an influx of Muslim residents following the 1985 communal riots, and that inflow picked up pace after the 2002 pogroms. I spoke to Hindu and Muslims living in the city who told me that Muslims were simply not eligible for flats in most housing societies across the city. This spatial segregation, which is an emerging phenomenon in recent decades, is now commonly accepted as the 'ways things are'.

How confident are Narendra Modi and the BJP heading into elections?

There are clear indications that Modi himself is feeling much less confident about the outcome than in previous elections. First, beginning in late 2011, Modi launched a series of Sadbhavana (goodwill) fasts meant to promote communal harmony and usher in a period of reconciliation with the minority Muslim community. Despite several months of holding fasts across the state and employing rhetoric about reconciliation, the BJP did not give a single party ticket to a Muslim candidate in the 2012 elections -- in line with the precedent in the 2002 and 2007 elections.

The reason, quite simply, is that Modi feels threatened by the GPP, which provides an alternative for many on the Hindu right who previously had nowhere else to turn. A second sign of Modi's insecurity is his decision to renominate a very large percentage of incumbent members of the legislative assembly from the BJP, a departure from 2007 when he axed roughly 40 per cent of MLAs in a bid to avoid 'anti-incumbency' sentiment and punish party members who he deemed were 'underperforming'.

Political analysts speculated that Modi decided not to repeat this apparently successful manoeuver in 2012, contrary to his political instinct, because he could not tolerate unhappy members of his party breaking ranks with the BJP or defecting to the GPP. A final sign of insecurity stems from Modi's response to a politically savvy announcement by the Congress Party in Gujarat. In August, the Congress announced a scheme called Ghar nu Ghar by which Gujarati women (and their families) would be eligible to avail themselves of low-cost housing should the Congress come to power in the forthcoming elections.

Women across the state besieged Congress party offices seeking beneficiary forms despite the fact that the scheme would only come into effect if Congress won the election. The response to Congress's ploy caught Modi off guard when he was already feeling vulnerable on social-development issues -- especially since the Gujarat housing board, a state-run body, had not launched a single low-cost housing scheme in a decade.

Compelled to respond, Modi quietly secured special budgetary allocation of Rs 1,600 crore (Rs 16 billion) and launched a low-cost housing scheme in which below-poverty-line households would receive Rs 45,000 towards the cost of new home construction. Because of tight restrictions around elections, Modi ensured that eligible households were identified, individual bank accounts were established where necessary using the local government machinery, and families received their first transfer of Rs 21,000 before the election 'model code of conduct' came into force.

To directly counter the Congress push, the chief minister focused his efforts on the tribal areas of Gujarat, which are traditional Congress Party strongholds.

What has Narendra Modi's legacy been in Gujarat?

The question of Modi's legacy is a highly contentious issue, both inside his home state and beyond. Modi has campaigned vigorously on his economic record. Data confirms that Gujarat has enjoyed one of the highest rates of GDP growth of any state over the last decade: between 2001 and 2010, Gujarat's GDP grew at 8.2 per cent a year, the fourth-fastest-growing state. In the 10 years since 2001, per capita income in Gujarat has tripled.

Detractors argue that Gujarat has always been one of India's more prosperous states, owing to its vast coastline and international trading links, its peoples' entrepreneurial spirit, and favorable initial conditions related to education and literacy (dating back to the colonial era).

While it is difficult to disentangle the contribution of Modi himself to Gujarat's overall economic success story, clearly he deserves some credit for maintaining (if not elevating) Gujarat's economic dynamism. After all, sustaining rapid economic growth for ten years is no small matter. Having said that, critics also point out that Gujarat under Modi has not fared as well on social development as it has on economic growth.

This criticism appears entirely valid: it is certainly the case that Modi has relied on a strategy of trickle-down growth in Gujarat to benefit the poor rather than using the state apparatus to aggressively promote a social-welfare agenda. There are few signs that Modi's pro-growth agenda has been inclusive, at least in any meaningful sense. For instance, Gujarat ranks 18th among Indian states in terms of literacy, and it performs poorly on mortality indicators and malnutrition.

Finally, communal relations between Hindus and Muslims remain strained, to put it mildly. Modi is fond of remarking that in the 10 years since the pogroms against Muslims in 2002, there has been no communal tension between the two religious groups. Yet this seems to be more because the spirit of Gujarat's Muslims was broken after 2002 than the result of any sincere process of reconciliation.

Criminality is widespread in Indian electoral politics. Is this an issue in Gujarat?

Criminality is an issue in Gujarati politics, although it tends not to get the same attention as in the 'Hindi' belt states of north India, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The dynamics of criminality in politics are quite deep-rooted, and there are at least three strands one can identify. First, in several pockets of Saurashtra, one finds notable politicians who also represent powerful local criminal syndicates.

These politicians essentially represent protection rackets for a variety of licit and illicit industries -- whether in fisheries, the diamond business, limestone mining, or the smuggling of goods in and out of coastal ports.

The second strand is linked to the illicit liquor trade, which has traditionally been a lucrative business since Gujarat is a dry state. The industry has tight political connections given smugglers' need for political protection from the police and bureaucracy. In recent years, the liquor racket has ceded some degree of preeminence to a third criminal nexus: the builder racket -- that is, entities involved in real estate and construction that have formed an alliance with powerful local politicians.

The builder racket has links with criminality not merely in terms of corruption but also because many builders and speculators require 'muscle' to conduct forcible evictions, grab land, and coerce landholders reluctant to part with prime land holdings.

Each of these strands is also intimately linked with channeling illicit money into electoral campaigns, an issue that provides the greatest amount of heartburn to election authorities in the state.

What would be the broader implications of a Modi victory for national politics?

Almost everyone expects that if Modi is triumphant for a third time in Gujarat, he will stake his claim to the BJP's prime ministerial candidacy for the 2014 general elections. For his part, Modi has never been shy about his desire to play a larger role in Indian politics. From travelling to China (against the wishes of the BJP high command), to touting Gujarat's 'efficient governance' as a model for the country and wading into important national debates with aplomb, Modi has long harboured ambitions to play a leading part on the national stage.

There is a great deal of speculation about the number of seats Modi needs to win in order to make the transition to Delhi, with many people arguing that he needs to match, if not surpass, his 117-seat vote total in 2007.

Short of a scenario in which he barely cobbles together a majority in the assembly, Modi will have a fairly strong case vis-a-vis the party's high command to project him as their candidate in 2014. The problem with the BJP, as it is currently structured, is that it boasts a multitude of leaders in Delhi -- many of whom covet the top job yet few of whom appear to be prime ministerial material. Despite Modi's liabilities, of which there are many, he is a wily politician with national name recognition and an impressive resume.

However, Modi will forever be linked to the terrible atrocities against Muslims that took place on his watch. While no court of law has ever found him guilty of directing these attacks, many scholars and observers highlight his administration's sins of omission, and individuals close to him have either been indicted or found guilty of sins of commission as well.

If Modi makes the jump to the national stage, many expect that well-regarded Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal-United party will abandon their electoral alliance with the BJP, which currently governs Bihar -- a state that is home to more than 90 million Indians and, thus, has a good deal of political clout.

Kumar has repeatedly sent signals that he intends to take such a step if Modi becomes the BJP's national candidate (indeed, in the 2010 Bihar state elections, Kumar adamantly opposed the idea of Modi campaigning there on behalf of BJP candidates). Modi's perceived anti-Muslim proclivities would also damage the BJP's chances of allying with other pivotal regional parties that express frustration with the ruling Congress Party. Many of these parties tout their 'secular' credentials and would have a difficult time making nice with a Modi-led BJP. If the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance fragments in this way, it could jeopardise the BJP's prospects of leading a coalition to power in the national elections.

Furthermore, there are other forces within the BJP that would bristle at the idea of Modi as the party's future candidate for prime minister. Many within the Sangh Parivar have reservations about Modi and his cult of personality. These organisations do not necessarily have a credible political alternative to support, but reduced enthusiasm among their rank-and-file would likely dampen the BJP's mobilisation efforts.

As for other key BJP leaders, much was made about recent comments by the BJP's Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, who stated that Modi was prime ministerial material. Although the press framed this as an endorsement, it was more likely a strategic calculation by Swaraj: if Modi wins, she remains relevant, and if Modi loses, she did not ruffle any feathers among his supporters.

Milan Vaishnav is an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which originally published this article here

Milan Vaishnav