As the process of state assembly elections gets underway in Gujarat, politicians, journalists, and academics across party and ideological divides indicate that the outcomes are likely to give a third time victory to the Narendra Modi government.
This would be no mean achievement for two reasons: First, it is anti-incumbency that is the normal trend after such a long stint in power, more so in the case of a clearly poised two-party competition between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The latter encourages offering the electorate with better agendas, and gaps in performance can soon lead to a poised campaign against the other. Second, economic development alone has not been a guarantee of being returned to power.
In the light of this, I argue that apart from development, there needs to be a focus on the skills, craft, and language used by the ruling party as well as the opposition to unravel the full range of nuances that are on display in this important electoral contest. Beginning with the BJP, the most important element is the showcasing of the development performance under Modi.
In the decade that he has led the state, the gross state domestic product (GSDP) has grown by over 10 per cent. Of even greater significance is the sectoral composition (of the GSDP) -- high growth rates in agriculture and manufacturing have held up in the state even though there have been downturns at the national level.
Although noted economist Prof YK Alagh argues that Modi's claims of nearly 11 per cent growth rate in agriculture is too high, his own estimates too place the growth at around six per cent. Behind this are stories of targeted policy efforts of a three-phase, continuous electricity supply, and association of the state's agricultural universities in providing on the ground advice on nutrient supply.
But development by itself has not been a guarantee to electoral victory, significant examples being the unanticipated defeat of the National Democratic Alliance notwithstanding an 'India Shining' campaign and the defeat of Chandrababu Naidu known as the 'CEO of AP' for his successful leadership of globalisation and liberalisation oriented growth. Lessons that are not unknown to Modi, and this perhaps explains why he is not resting on his development report card alone. Two additional skills he has employed closer to the polls dates, are his campaign language and the small but steady promise of cash transfers to pockets of perceived grievances.
The language first -- Modi showcases his development and simultaneously creates the 'enemy' image against the Centre for its 'neglect' of Gujarat. In his meetings, while he recounts his development efforts in a style of conversation involving the people, he concludes by saying that this development does not satisfy him.
The message conveyed is that Gujarat has an enemy in the Centre, ignoring completely his real political competitors, the local unit of the Congress. The latter does have a reasonable existence, reaffirmed in the panchayat elections in 2010-11, where the party had nearly 30 per cent vote-share in majority districts, even though not as many seats because of the difficulties of the first-past-the-post system.
The skills and craft can be seen in the manner in which Modi has been able to outsmart the Congress on some of its strong pre-electoral agendas. The most important of these is the ghar-nu-ghar scheme -- a housing promise for the poor announced by the Congress in August this year. A senior editor of an Ahmedabad-based daily points that the huge turnout for filling forms for it worried the government. But the Congress was unable to sustain the support generated largely due to ineffective communication with the people, and Modi soon outsmarted them by announcing a cash support for housing for the poor! Other cash promises include farm loan waivers and payment of arrears to teachers, and enhanced allowances to home guards.
Noted social-scientist Achyut Yagnik notes that after the decline of KHAM (Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims), the Congress could not come up with an alternate strong social coalition. In this vacuum came Modi's ideology-laden style of rule. His language of Gujarati pride now has appeal across castes, especially among the younger migrants to cities, who wish to leave their parochial identity behind.
Add to this, are the windfall gains coming his way from a declining image of the Congress at the Centre, on account of scam charges. All in all, as the battle in Gujarat unfolds, it will be skills, craft, and language, as much as the plank of development, which are likely to decide who the winner is.
Image: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during his Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra | Courtesy: Gujarat BJPDr Manisha Priyam is a Research Scholar with the London School of Economics and Political Science