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The BJP in Gujarat: For Modi, by Modi, of Modi
Sheela Bhatt in Ahmedabad
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Gujarat Elections: Complete coverage

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December 04, 2007

In Gujarat, which will see two-phased assembly elections on December 11 and 16, the Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of Chief Minister Narendra Modi [Images] seems to have an edge over its main rival, the Congress party, but the Congress is putting up a brave fight in Saurashtra, South Gujarat, and is improving its position in Central Gujarat.

The dull and colourless elections are getting exciting with the confusion created by the Congress's smart move to play the caste card against the Modi card. The Congress has done some unannounced compromises and adjustments in minimising damage by rivals by buying them out.
The Gujarat elections can be called the most unconventional election of modern Gujarat, where a state politician is seeking re-election banking on his personality and leadership qualities, and not on any political, social, economical issues or on the basis of caste or communal stand, as Modi did in 2002.

Modi secretly idolises Indira Gandhi [Images]. He is trying to foster former Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran-like idol worship in Gujarat politics. So convinced are his party men of his tactics to promote himself that they are not ruling out a Gujarat Desham if the BJP's Delhi leadership sabotages his mega dreams in the future.

The current elections are not even a two-party contest for the 182 assembly seats. It is largely a Congress versus Modi battle, with no single issue dominating the scene. Modi is cleverly filling up the political vacuum of ideas and vision in the state by revolving his party's campaign on his personality and leadership traits.

By any yardstick Modi is overstretching himself. His strategy has the gambler's instincts. As the Congress is consolidating its position as every hour goes by, the caste card is coming into play in villages. Without the glue of Hindutva Modi cannot unite castes or nullify the impact of caste-based voting so he is marketing himself and not talking even two lines about his party or his senior leaders.

Modi reminds you of former prime minister Indira Gandhi in the post-Bangladesh war days, when her charisma was unmatched and the Congress party was subordinate to her vision.

In five years of Modi-centric rule, the BJP's central leadership -- people like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani -- its parent body the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and close associates the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have become inconsequential in Gujarat.

In power since 2002 with an absolute majority, Modi has built up his image carefully to project himself as an incorruptible man with a clear vision for development. Lately, the Congress party has come out with a 'chargesheet' to nail Modi in cases of corruption, but it failed to focus sharply on any one charge to turn it into an election issue.

Modi is charming the youth and women with his oratorical skill and claiming he is macho enough to take on international jihadi terrorists. His I-me-myself speeches smack of an exaggerated sense of power but that is precisely what is working well with Gujaratis, who have no presence in New Delhi's power structure or in the powerful national institutions including the army. They are applauding Modi's assertiveness in towns and cities which are seeing 8 to 10 percent growth in the last five years, thanks to more water, more electricity and better prospects of farming with the introduction of the BT cotton technology, which is yielding an annual turnover of Rs 200 billion ($5.05 billion).

The rightwing Gujaratis are promised security by Modi so that they can march on the path of development without interruption of curfews, blasts, local insurgencies or political instability.

Gujarat is virtually under the onslaught of Modi's claims for himself. He is talking about his '56-inch chest' in a political advertisement on television. He claims he is a doer and doesn't believe in nepotism because he is a man without family. Normally, Indians believe politicians and public servants indulge in shameless corruption for the sake of their family and children. Modi is positioning himself as a loner and a dreamer. A large number of Gujaratis are buying into it because his party's voters are pro-reform businessmen and traders, hardworking middle class and pro-development urban people who want to move beyond the communal nightmare of 2002.

What matters to his supporters is what Modi is promising -- 'uninterrupted development' in the next five years through his iron grip over the party and the administration. With improved water and electricity supply, Modi is trying to strengthen his position in the interiors of the state too. His negative image of a Hindutva poster boy who 'inspired and allowed communal riots' is relevant outside Gujarat and in the media; in Gujarat, not even the Congress party is uttering the H word.

The Tehelka sting operation, which tried to expose the role of saffron forces behind the riots  was banned on local cable TV channels by the Modi government and was endorsed by none other than the Congress's I&B minister Priyaranjan Dasmunshi in Parliament. Modi was worried about his national and international image and the Congress thought it will create a communal tension in society which will work in favour of Modi.

Modi's edge comes from the role he is offering to play to perfection for the middle-class urban masses. 'Have no fear, I'll protect,' is Modi's message. As a result, the Tehelka tapes have been thrown into the dustbin by the Congress which is putting the best possible effort in this election. 

The Congress party is certainly reviving in the state, but it doesn't have the clarity of political thought to run the state. It has diluted its secular ideology because it is scared Modi will brand it pro-minority. The Congress party has also failed to project any local leader to challenge Modi's leadership. The Congress's print advertisements is like a tender notice, without any visuals. "How can we put Sonia Gandhi's [Images] picture? We don't want to turn the election into Modi versus Sonia Gandhi," said a senior Congress leader.

So, Modi is the issue. In the minds of the common man -- from plumber to professor -- his leadership is at stake.

Modi knows this is the election that will make him or break him; and his party.
When the Hindu vote bank doesn't get polarised on any emotional issue, the BJP's electoral chances weaken. This time, Gujarat is not seeing polarisation along communal lines, as it did in 2002. Fearing the voters' mood shifting on caste lines, Modi has not at all abandoned Hindutva issues, but people are not as receptive as 2002.

Modi belongs to the so-called Ghanchi community which doesn't have any power in the state's political structure. On other hand, he has provoked the Leuva Patels, Gujarat's strongest political class and Koli Patels, Gujarat's largest segment of voters. Both are tough communities to crack once they get upset.

In the last five years, Modi's party is vertically divided for and against Modi. His rivals in the party feel Modi is arrogant and anti-democratic. Even his predecessor and highly respected leader Keshubhai Patel has refused to campaign for him or the party. Keshubhai, Kashiram Rana, Suresh Mehta, Dr Vallabh Kathiria and Pravin Togadia are working openly against him.

Modi's attempt to bring down widespread electricity theft -- which costs the state millions -- has touched the raw nerves of Patel farmers in Saurashtra, who were charged with hundreds of criminal cases. Modi's attempt to professionalise the Gujarat Electricity Board has invited farmers' fury.

His secular adversaries are furious to see the degeneration of the entire election into one man they hate so much. For secular thinkers he is a communal, megalomaniacal, arrogant leader unfit for a democratic India. "Modi is a demagogue," says Achyut Yagnik, social thinker and co-author of Shaping of Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond. "His speeches on security and development have the subtext of Hindutva."

Modi's centralised style of functioning has punctured many egos. As a result, two former chief ministers of his party and more than 15 elected members had rebelled against him. Eight BJP rebel candidates have shifted to the Congress party and are fighting elections on the Congress party's symbol.

The BJP has put all its eggs in Modi's basket in the absence of a Hindutva wave and
because of the high level of anti-incumbency in the majority of the 127 constituencies from where its candidates were elected in 2002.

But, the BJP has two worries.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, there was a swing of 4.58 percent in favour of the Congress party in spite of Modi leading the campaign. The Congress party's vote share increased from 39.28 percent to 43.86 percent, and the BJP lost 2.49 percent of its vote share. As a result, the BJP lost its majority in 38 assembly segments. In plain English, that means if the 2004 Gujarat election mood is repeated in 2007, the BJP will get 89 seats and the Congress party will get 91 seats.

Second, if the Leuva Patel turns away, if Muslims, Dalits -- the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy -- and the poor line up to vote more than the BJP's conventional voters, and if the overall voting percentage remains low due to lack of enthusiasm, Modi will have a tough time.

For Vajpayee and former Hyderabad chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu [Images], personality-based campaigns did not work in 2004. Will it work for Modi?

"The Modi presented here in this election is not because of the media, but in spite of it," says Arvind Bosmia, a Modi supporter. "He is a self-made politician."

Arun Jaitley, BJP leader and Modi backer, rules out such a scenario. "We will get a comfortable majority," he says. "The issues have been spilt into three. The Congress party is soft on terror policy. The Congress party tried to help the Godhra accused through the [Justice U C] Banerjee Committee [which ruled that the Sabarmati Express fire, which killed 59 people, mostly Hindu kar sevaks, and sparked the communal carnage in the state in 2002, was accidental]. The Congress party is running away from the ideological debate on secularism and the issue of leadership. The third issue relates to the positives of the Modi government," he adds.

The BJP points out that Congress party advertisements do not refer to Godhra, or to the riots, nor are they defending Sohrabuddin Sheikh -- who was killed in a fake encounter by the Gujarat police -- as viciously as they have been doing otherwise.

"The Gujarat victory," claims Jaitley, "will be the beginning of the end of Congress party's rule in New Delhi. If we win Gujarat, the BJP acquires an upper hand in the coming Lok Sabha elections."

Next: Modi's five pressure points

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