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Lesson from Gujarat: Development alone won't get votes
Sheela Bhatt
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December 10, 2007

The campaign for the assembly elections in Gujarat is dominated by the positives and negatives of Chief Minister Narendra Modi [Images], who seems to have an edge in urban areas.

But, in villages and towns, Modi is being challenged by the Congress party's energised cadre and rebels of his own Bharatiya Janata Party.

There is more at stake on the outcome of the two-phased election than the state of Gujarat. Only after the polls, the Left parties and the Congress party will decide their future strategy and the fate of the India-United States nuclear deal.

Also, on the basis of the election results, the Congress will assess the advantages of going in for parliamentary elections around April 2008, a year before schedule.

The election for the 182 assembly seats is politically complex than the 2002 polls. Modi  would like to play a bigger game with bigger aims. Last time, he won 126 seats. If he wins fewer seats this time round, he can be in trouble even after a victory. Not only will his rise be hampered, his leadership will be challenged within the BJP.

Many detractors within the party think that Modi, a loner and arrogant to boot, will become unmanageable even for the BJP leadership in New Delhi if he wins more than 130 seats.

It is imperative for Modi to win impressively because in Gandhinagar, too, within his party and in the Opposition camp, he has evoked strong negative feelings. In Gujarat, there is a large brigade of district- and taluka-level political leaders who want Modi to lose because the old veterans have become irrelevant after his rise. Modi has to justify his larger-than-life image by winning handsomely.

Thus, he reverted to the Hindutva card in the last week preceding the first phase of election, and is busy doing "communal engineering" as against the Congress's "social engineering."

It was a sensational and shameful moment when during his speech at Mangrol in south Gujarat, he justified the illegal police "encounter killing" of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a small-time criminal who was branded a terrorist.

In the sleepy town, Modi supported his police's action of taking  law into their hands and sent the crowd into frenzy.

"Mane kaho Sohrabuddin nu shun karvanu [Tell me what to do of Sohrabuddin]?" he asked. 'Maro! maro! [Kill him! kill him!]'screamed the crowd.

When the campaign began, Modi said he was fighting the election and seeking a second term for his government on the plank of development.

As expected, a week before the election, he electrified his meetings by evoking the basic instincts of his audience. He dangled an excuse -- that Congress president Sonia Gandhi [Images] had provoked him when she called him 'merchant of death' at an election rally December 1.

But, this is an excuse because as soon as the Election Commission's notice stopped him from using Sohrabuddin encounter, Modi shifted to Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death in the Parliament attack case

Modi has three advantages.

He has the charisma reminiscent of Rajesh Khanna of the Aradhana and Andaz days. "It's pure theatre. He is a versatile performer," says Tarak Mehta, distinguished humour writer and playwright.

Modi connects to people on the national issues with funny phrases and spicy local dialect.

The Congress has given the lame excuse that as per tradition its elected representatives will select the chief minister if they win a majority. The Congress didn't project their chief ministerial candidate and that became a huge advantage for Modi.

In the television era, when personality is more important than issues, such a move by the Congress was unwise and costly. The Congress party may be in with a chance to make a fight of it, but it has made a strategic blunder in an age when 'fact is fiction, TV is reality' -- to quote a song by the rock band U2 horribly out of context.

Not presenting a chief ministerial candidate for the cameras gave Modi an opportunity, which he promptly grabbed.

'Modi versus who?' he asked through advertisements. He is pitting himself against Sonia Gandhi, and making her look like an 'alien' when she talks about issues concerning Gujarat.

Modi has clarity, voters think. The Congress leaders in some pockets do have combative zeal to counter Modi's Hindutva card. Quite intelligently, they resort to mimicry with the help of folk tales and local dialect.

But, in Gujarat, this time or in the coming years, the Congress can win by default only till they debate out their vision on terrorism, Hindutva and their policy on Muslims. Modi keeps saying, "I will never become a partner in the policy of appeasement of minorities."

Haren Pathak, BJP member of Parliament from Ahmedabad since last many elections, argues that only when the Gujarat Congress gives enough political evidence to the people that its heart beats as much for Hindu issues as for Muslim issues will it gain credibility. If that is done in desi language, in desi style by a desi Congress leader Modi will be left without an issue. The flip-flop on Sonia Gandhi's maut ka saudagar remark is the latest example of the Congress's confusion. Modi, right or wrong, has a view on terrorism and on security that even his committed voters are able to articulate it before camera.

Still, what makes the Gujarat election interesting is that Modi is not unchallenged.

For the first time in the last six years, Congressmen in nooks and corners of Gujarat are saying that "Modi ne haravi shakay" (Modi can be defeated). He seemed invincible even three  months ago, but now Congressmen have found a formula to counter his spell in certain pockets of Gujarat.

BJP leaders admit that the Congress is in the electoral race and is conniving with the BJP rebels quite smartly.

The party's groupism is under control. The headquarters is pumping in money, putting in efforts and polishing up the infrastructure in districts and talukas. The party has given poll tickets keeping in mind 'social engineering' -- its leaders are playing the caste card unashamedly.

"Even I am surprised," says Jagdish Thakore, Congress candidate from Dahegaum, "at the response from the audience when I say Modi is not for five crore Gujaratis, as he claims, he is for himself and for the five crorepatis; people believe me."

Thakore, who won in 2002 despite the saffron surge that swept the state, adds: "This time, there is no Hindutva wave.

"Modi is fighting alone without a party and this man has hyped his work so much that he is going to get trapped in his own lies."

In Saurashtra and central Gujarat, on the issue of development, Modi is facing a tough time because his mission needs time; people's aspirations are too high.

His office has produced tonnes of material to show Gujarat has made superlative progress in terms of providing electricity, roads, water and better education. But, assembly elections are about the nuts and bolts of development issues.

"Modi has raised Gujarati parochialism and supported only big industries," says Acyut Yagnik, Ahmedabad�based analyst.

"In the process the poor communities of Gujarat -- like tribals, Dalits, fisher folk -- have been marginalised."

At least 20 percent of Gujarat's population lives below the poverty line. Modi has not yet done anything noteworthy for them.

Modi has certainly done a good job under the State-sponsored project called Jyotigram to provide 24-hour electricity in all homes in the state, but he adopted a short cut to claim success.

He has reduced or maneuvered the supply to agriculture. His success is more about maneuvering the stock of electricity than creating new energy resources.

Previously, farmers got 10-14 hours of electricity by running 'horse-power' -- a term for subsidised phase-wise power supply. It was cheaper, too. But now, only homes get electricity regularly, which is billed through meters. The cost-conscious rural populace is quite unhappy about the higher bills.

"Are we going to earn money by getting electricity in homes?" asks Jethwa Kandhawa, a young farmer in Junagadh. "We need power in our farmlands to run the water pumps so that we can cultivate groundnuts and earn money. The Modi government is good for the upper class living in cities."

Chabilbhai Patel, Congress candidate from Mandvi, says, "The media is more mesmerised by Modi than poor villagers. People are asking for land for building huts, medical services and cheap rations. Modi's economic policies are making things difficult for the poor."

Patel has scripted a hilarious skit mocking Modi, and the people are applauding it.

Modi's strategy harps on macro-issues --like security against terrorism. He claims victory in that battle, pointing out there has been no incident of jihadi terrorism after the Akshardham temple attack. He challenges jihadi terrorists from public platforms to "try out" in Gujarat.

His development plank is targeting the youth. His picture with business honchos Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata in the 'Resurgent Gujarat' shows has impressed urban voters who believe India's rich and powerful are now backing Modi despite the 2002 riots and his alleged role in it.

The Congress has failed to come up with any slogan, issue or inspiring speech. Till the last day of the election campaign for 86 seats, Rahul Gandhi [Images] had not even ventured out in Gujarat � an evidence of the lack of political courage to take on a brazen Modi.

Sonia is spirited, but her speeches don't connect with the sons and daughters of Gujarat. Modi's biggest impediment is his own party and its rebels.

The lesson of this election campaign is that the 'development card' is not enough to win elections in India. Even a confident, charismatic, combative and populist leader like Modi could not launch himself on the development plank alone.

"To capture and dominate media coverage, and eventually people's minds, we need emotional issues," claimed a minister in the Modi government.

"Compared to the last elections, Hindutva forces are divided," says Yagnik. "There exist three shades among the Hindutva forces: Soft Hindutva, Modi brand Hindutva and hard Hindutva, represented by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu saints who are opposing Modi."

If Modi wins this election, it will be the victory of the successful weaving of his public image in the last six years with the help of the media and through his speeches. If one looks at the package Modi is offering to voters, it is difficult to argue against his win.

The package consists of communal emotions, the promise of a globalised, resurgent Gujarat and a charismatic leader capable of leading a young nation

In 2002, he was not tested, but this election will take him to new heights to start a new chapter in Indian politics. But, again, at that time, his comments on Sohrabuddin will come back to haunt him if and when he takes on a leadership role beyond Gujarat. Maybe then, he will regret sidelining the development plank to win the 2007 election.

In the end one may like to ask:  Will Modi win?

The answer lies in understanding the question: Is Modi's charisma sufficient to help the BJP counter anti-incumbency, an once-again-fit Congress, anti-Modi BJP rebels within and outside the party, and the passive resistance of the Gujarat chapter of RSS?

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