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Mumbai's Gujarati community says BJP has a slight edge
Ganesh Nadar in Mumbai |
December 12, 2002 22:56 IST
None of them will vote - but all of them have an opinion.
The Gujarati community in Mumbai is in a state of suspended animation, in anticipation of Sunday, December 15 when we will know, finally, who won, who lost in what they see as the most crucial election in a long time. And never mind what the politicians and the media say - as far as the community is concerned, the concensus is that Gujarat 2002 will be fought, won, and lost on the basis of religion and related issues.
It is quite eye-opening, in fact, to listen to people as they discuss the pros and cons with the detached air of a grandmaster analysing a game of chess. Take, for instance, Dr Dinesh Thakkar, an anesthesiologist working in a suburban hospital. "Godhra and the riots cancel each other out," he says. "Akshardham is a point on the plus side for the BJP, and it is to the BJP's favour that there were no riots after Akshardham."
Three incidents, several hundred lives, much trauma, all tallied up and balanced on the electoral slate. "Modi is preferable to Vaghela," he adds, "because he is the lesser of the two evils."
Tax consultant Jeetendra Trivedi, a native of the Sabarkanta district, goes one better when he says that the riots and Godhra will both work in favour of the BJP.
This, many point out, is not the first time Gujarat has been hit by communal violence. Where Modi comes out ahead, they say, is that for once, the man at the head of the government was prepared to stand back and do nothing, while the majority community got its "revenge."
The most vocal of Modi supporters, however, go on the back foot when you ask them about the organised massacres post-Godhra. As a resident of Walkeshwar put it, "What happened is wrong, very wrong. But then, we are not now concerned with politics, we are concerned with business."
Nilesh Bhadra, an accountant from Jamnagar, is the sceptic, arguing that recent events will in fact go against Modi. "The Muslims will vote for anyone but the BJP," says Hozaffa Khokar of Rajkot, elaborating on that thought. The argument goes that while the Muslim vote is consolidated against the BJP, ditto the Christian vote, the Hindu vote is by no means as consolidated. This problem, Khokar believes, is compounded by the fact that many Hindus will not come out to vote. So when you club apathy, fragmentation of the majority vote, and the consolidation of the minority vote, what do you get?
Interestingly, corruption - the staple issue in most elections - hardly merits a mention here. Both the BJP and the Congress are corrupt, runs the argument. "That is why corruption is not much of an issue," explains Hozaffa. "Vaghela only ate money, this fellow Modi eats people," adds Ismailbhai, a resident of Kutch. Cutting across the religious divide, Nilesh (surname withheld) agrees.
The Madhavpura bank scam, focus of much media attention in recent days, is not much of an issue. Why? Because both parties are involved - so it kind of cancels out when the voters hold the scales.
An interesting issue - and for the Congress, an unexpected one - lies in the character of Vaghela. A majority of the Gujaratis bring up his past record, speaking of how he walked out of the BJP at a crucial time. The word is, the man cannot be trusted. "Modi is the real RSS man, not Vaghela," declares P V Dave. "Haren Pandya is a stalwart - though he was refused a ticket, he remained loyal. Vaghela is not loyal, and we vote for loyalty."
The focus, overall, is narrow, localised. Neither Sonia Gandhi, nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, cut much ice with the voters - or at least, with the extended Gujarati community in Mumbai. "This is between Modi and Vaghela, neither Sonia nor Vajpayee make a difference," says Dr Thakkar.
Stressing the point that this election will be decided on state lines, N D Gala observes that whatever the public pronouncements were, the underlying fact is that Modi decided at the last minute not to contest from Gandhinagar mainly because 70 per cent of the voters in that constituency are non-Gujaratis.
You would think, given that this is Gujarat we are talking about, that economy would be a big issue. It is - only, the community here doesn't quite seem to know whom to blame for the state's fall down the ladder of prosperous states. Gujarat, they all point out, was the premier industrial state at one time. If it has fallen from that pedestal today, the problem is electricity, most believe. They also point out that industry itself has changed focus, that the Southern states stole a march over them because they were quick to open up to the technology sector, which is where the big foreign bucks come from.
"Gujaratis are resourceful," they say with obvious pride. "Today we are lagging behind by about ten years, factories are closed, the banks are not giving loans to industry. But let the power position stabilise, let peace return, and then we will be number one again," says Dave.
Hozaffa, though, comes up with a rider - Gujarat, he says, cannot prosper under either the Congress or the BJP. A third front has to come up, to lead the state out of the morass. Catch is, he is not quite sure who this third front will comprise of.
Given that they live in Mumbai, many of the Gujaratis I spoke to are watching the Shiv Sena's performance in the polls. No one believes the Bal Thackeray-helmed party is much of a force to reckon with in Gujarat. But Dave, and others like him, believe that it will win a few seats in the area from Udhna to Baroda. One gent, who for obvious reasons didn't want to give his name, hopes not. "You saw the way they behaved when (senior Sena leader) Anand Dighe died. The death was natural, yet they destroyed equipment worth millions in that hospital in Thane. Today, Thane people have to come to the city for treatment, there are no good hospitals there."
The other staple issue is caste and this, most believe, will be a factor more in the villages than in the urban areas. And even here, the battle lines are clear: the Patels versus the backward castes and the tribes.
Interestingly, water could decide a few seats, some feel. The Narmada water issue evokes strong feelings, and the chronic water shortages - on which Congress leader Sonia Gandhi harped during her campaign - could cost the BJP a bit.
A sidelight here is that water has sparked a battle between Kutch and the rest of Gujarat. Nitinbhai Gala, a resident of Borvili, points out that once, during a severe shortage, a trainful was sent from Mumbai to Kutch - but the train was stopped en route by the people in Surat.
Kutch, therefore, feels hard done by. Many from that region point out that most of the mineral wealth of the state is concentrated in that region. 100 truckloads of minerals are lifted from the Kutch region each day, they say, yet all of Kutch doesn't get a drop of Narmada water. What is worse, they argue, is that the government did not declare the region drought-affected, thus entitling them to concessions and relief.
Interestingly, some like Hozaffa point out that there are real issues this election should be fought on - water, power, industrialisation, corruption, the bank scam, development. But, they add with regret that in the final analysis nothing will count - it is religion, and vote banks, pure and simple.
But when it comes to self-interest, then it is a different story. "During the Congress rule," Gala, and others, argue, "prices used to rise by five, ten paise at a time. Look what is happening in BJP-raaj - a gas cylinder that cost Rs 90 three years back now costs Rs 260."
Prices have skyrocketed even as overall income has declined - and the simmering resentment arising from this could have an impact. Above all, though, one thing is clear - in Mumbai, the community does not feel any marked wave in favour of the BJP; or, for that matter, against it. And this fact comes across no matter who you talk to. The majority view is that the BJP just might edge past the post, eking out a narrow win.