VERY RARELY in India’s history has an Assembly election had so much riding on it. Dubbed as the semi-final before the big battle in 2014, the Gujarat election generated plenty of curiosity across the country. And the man touted as the BJP’s future prime ministerial candidate didn’t disappoint. Led by Narendra Modi, the BJP won its fifth and his third election in a row. Though he missed the 2007 figure by a narrow margin, the victory was comprehensive enough to quell any lingering doubt about his influence.
The 2012 election was different from the previous two editions because there was no apparent wave this time. The biggest roadblock facing Modi was the Saurashtra factor, and all eyes were on old warhorse Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). With 54 seats, Saurashtra and Kutch had the potential to rock Modi’s applecart as Patels, especially Leuva Patels, were reportedly upset by the lack of development there. In a region ravaged by a bad monsoon, farmer suicides, bad roads and erratic power supply, even BJP insiders had admitted that they would consider themselves lucky if they managed 22-25 seats.
But the Keshubhai factor and the Patel anger fizzled out, much to the disappointment of the Congress and the GPP. Out of 48 seats in Saurashtra and six in Kutch, the BJP won 30 and five, respectively. Though it was eight less than the 2007 tally, the result was way better than expected. The Congress could only manage 16, and the GPP just two. Keshubhai’s confidant Gordhan Zadaphia lost his seat.
While even his worst detractors were sure of his victory, Modi and his strategists knew the importance of numbers in this election. A victory with 100 seats would still have been a victory, but would have lacked the authority to make his transition from the chief minister’s position to a formidable candidate for the post of the prime minister. And finally, it ended with the BJP winning 115 seats, just two short of its 2007 performance.
So, how did Modi manage to fend off his rivals in Saurashtra? According to experts, the speculation of Leuva Patels ditching Modi in favour of the Congress and the GPP was overtly ambitious. “The hype attributed to the Patels was completely wrong,” says senior political commentator Vidyut Joshi. “Patels form 13 percent of Gujarat’s population. If you take out Kadva Patels, then Leuva Patels are only 7 percent. Nobody could say for certain that they would vote en bloc for Keshubhai’s GPP. It’s untrue that the GPP only ate into the BJP’s votes; it also dented the Congress. In fact, it was the Congress that got the biggest shock as two of its top leaders lost from Saurashtra.”
Kana Bantva, editor of Divya Bhaskar in Kutch-Saurashtra, feels that the BJP’s organisational reach ensured that the damage was limited in the region. “Modi had 5-6 months in hand. The BJP gave out a subtle message to the other communities that the GPP is a caste-based party concerned only about Leuva Patels. It was not true, but the label stuck. Apart from this, the party’s micromanagement of the booths was very good; not even a single supporter missed his/her vote. The Congress didn’t have that kind of manpower, nor did the GPP. It was the BJP’s organisational brilliance that ensured that the loss was not much. Modi also succeeded in polarising other communities in Saurashtra, which helped the party a lot.”
According to analysts, the constant chatter that Modi would become the PM if he wins in Gujarat struck a chord with the masses. Though he always prevaricated on the question, and talked about how his concerns are only limited to the six crore Gujaratis, his effective PR machinery worked overtime to ensure that the subtext of a comprehensive win was never in doubt in the voter’s mind. A senior Congress leader admitted off the record: “Gujaratis are extremely sentimental about things like a Gujarati as the prime minister. Despite a clear anti-Modi feeling, they ended up voting for him.”
According to experts, the constant chatter that Modi would become the PM if he wins in Gujarat struck a chord with the masses
Modi micromanaged this Assembly election with such dexterity that the Gujarat Congress’ divided leadership was rendered ineffectual right from the start. When he announced the candidature of Purshottam Singh Solanki against Leader of the Opposition Shaktisinh Gohil in Bhavnagar, even Solanki was initially very uncomfortable.
According to Kaushik Mehta, editor of Phool Chab newspaper, “Modi understood the importance of this contest. With one stroke, he not only forced Solanki to pull out all resources at his command to defeat Gohil, he also restricted Gohil to his constituency. Gohil is a senior Congress leader and had to travel to other constituencies as well. The end result was the defeat of Gohil. The same happened to Arjun Modhvadia. What happened with this masterstroke was that though the Congress managed to improve its margin by two seats, its top leadership was decimated, which embarrassed the Congress further.”
What could also be music to Modi’s ears, and boost his acceptability in the minority community, is the fact that the BJP has fared handsomely and won in a majority of the Muslim-dominated constituencies. Out of the 12 seats that had more than 20 percent Muslim population, the BJP bagged eight seats.
According to political experts, this change in mindset is on account of Muslims who are educated and are involved in business. According to Bantva, “Muslims who are educated and professional are looking forward to tie themselves to economic growth and prosperity. Only those in the rural belt and the urban ghettos are still anti-Modi.”
While rural Gujarat remained a bit of a worry for Modi, his image as a darling of the urban areas remains intact. Displaying absolute command, the BJP won 48 out of the 53 urban seats and 23 out of the 31 semi-urban seats.
After the results were announced, with Gujarat firmly tucked in his pocket, Modi first went to meet his mother and then, in a surprise move, visited Keshubhai at the latter’s residence. Modi touched his feet and offered him sweets. This gesture is being viewed as part of Modi’s strategy to reach out to his detractors. But if the kind of flutter he has generated in New Delhi after his win is any indication to go by, for him, the real battle has just begun.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.