Modi’s Achilles heel

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Mathew Vilayasseril, Political commentator

PR power Modi is seeking votes on the development plank
Photo: AFP

If the Gujarat elections were to be contested on Twitter or similar social media in the virtual world, then it would throw up only one winner: Narendra Modi. However, in the real world, voters have to make an effort to go to the polling booth and cast their vote on the basis of the perceived performance of the state government of the day. While Modi may be running one of the best PR machineries, this publicity hound will find it very difficult to gloss over the agrarian distress and disaffection in rural Gujarat. The Narmada is Gujarat’s lifeline, but most regions, including Kutch and Saurashtra, which were supposed to benefit the most, are still parched. A deficient monsoon and the consequent drought are only going to add to the farmers’ cup of woes.

Many columnists and political analysts have written reams about the “phenomenon” called Modi. It will take a brave punter to take a contrarian call on Modi. The Congress leadership, floating like a rudderless boat and in a comatose condition, should have had “diminishing convictions” on the “Modi magic” but are diffident and are at best admitting, albeit in private, that the Congress would improve their performance but stop shy of claiming that they would be in a position to form the next government. This is quite surprising given that the Congress has not had a stint in power since 1990. If the Congress leadership is demoralised in spite of the fact that ground reports suggest a mild resurgence for the party in rural Gujarat, it is bound to have a deleterious effect on the grassroots party worker.

What then explains the diffidence? The most obvious is the fact that while the BJP has an unquestionable, unified chain of command under Modi, the Congress does not have a strong leader to counter him, to rejuvenate the party at the grassroots, and capture the imagination of the people of Gujarat. Shankersinh Vaghela, the erstwhile mentor of Modi, has not been given a free hand and does not have wider acceptance in the larger Congress family as he is largely perceived to be an “RSS import”. The powerful Ahmed Patel and Vaghela run parallel factions in the Congress and are at odds with each other.

This is the first Assembly election that will be fought after the delimitation exercise. The boundaries of more than 60 constituencies have been redrawn and many seats will witness fresh candidates given the caste composition of these redrawn seats. Of the 182 seats, at least 102 seats can be classified as rural, about 35 seats would be classified as semi-rural (with municipalities) and about 45 seats as pure urban (primarily the four major cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot). In the rural areas, the Congress and the BJP are on an even keel; in fact, the Congress might even do marginally better than the BJP. It is in the semi-rural and urban areas where the BJP is likely to win the majority of the seats.

The Congress is likely to improve its performance in Kutch-Saurashtra, north and south Gujarat. Candidate selection and ticket distribution, keeping the caste equation in mind, are vital for a good performance. However, the party is expected to perform poorly in the urban areas. The urban voter seems to have bitten the bait of Modi’s PR machinery hook, line and sinker. The equation that holds sway is that any abuse or insult heaped on Modi is an abuse of 5.5 crore Gujaratis.

However, the Congress will benefit from the all-out efforts made by Vaghela and Co to woo the Muslims who had not participated enthusiastically in the 2007 elections. While their alienation from the BJP is complete and a high voter turnout amongst the minorities may prove to be beneficial to the Congress, the party leadership is careful to be perceived as not aggressively wooing this vote bank. There was no gloating or any negative statements from the Congress spokespersons even after the Naroda-Patiya judgment, which convicted Mayaben Kodnani, a former minister in the Modi Cabinet (who resigned as Minister for Woman and Child development in 2009) and her hatchet man Babu Bajrangi.

While Modi seems to have been given a free hand by the BJP’s central leadership, the Congress is still struggling to field the right candidates, although “winnability” seems to be the only criterion in ticket distribution. Modi is expected to weed out the deadwood and the non-performers effortlessly. He is expected to field about 60 new candidates, replacing many sitting MLAs on the basis of the feedback he receives from comprehensive booth-wise surveys.

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The Caste Equation In Gujarat

PATELS 15%

MINORITIES (MUSLIMS – 9%)11%

TRIBALS 15%

OBC THAKURS 17%

OBC KOLIS 18%

OTHER OBCS 10%

SAVARNA 4%

DALITS 10%

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The Patels are the dominant caste in the Kutch-Saurashtra region. While there is some chatter that the Patels are angry with Modi and Patel stalwarts such as Keshubhai Patel have raised the flag of dissidence, the BJP is unlikely to be damaged by such leaders who are politically well past their prime. The Maha Gujarat Party, floated by Modi’s bête noire Gordhan Zadaphia, is expected to marginally dent the BJP’s prospects but not enough to majorly benefit the Congress. Modi seems to have systematically marginalised state BJP leaders such as Keshubhai Patel, Suresh Mehta, Harin Pathak and Zadaphia. While RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshi is reported to be backing the Keshubhai Patel faction, it is not expected to significantly dent Modi’s chances in the Assembly elections.

Modi’s supremacy in the BJP is unmatched and well-established and the detractors within his party have been forced to eat humble pie. Modi is a past master at micro-managing elections. Modi is a man in a tearing hurry. The chatter about his 2014 conquest for 7, Race Course Road, mostly emanates from APCO Worldwide, a PR firm hired by Modi to successfully posit and project him as the man India awaits. Modi sets the agenda and the Congress responds to his diatribes and punches. The Congress should disturb this agenda-setting and put forth its own vision for the state.

Except for a few die-hard loyalists, Modi has managed to make vast sections of the state BJP leadership, the VHP and the RSS unhappy. The humiliation meted out to Sanjay Joshi, played out in full public view, is trademark Modi-style politics. His sectarian outlook and autocratic rule, with shades of fascism, reminiscent of intolerant despots and dictators of the past, may appeal to a section of the voting populace. Hubris may yet prove to be his nemesis ultimately, but he should escape its fury this time around. Modi will project himself as a development messiah; as the only antidote for the 2002 Gujarat riots. However, he has the blood of innocent Indians on his hands and that is one blot he will not be able to wash away in a hurry.

The urban voter seems to have bitten the bait of Modi’s PR machinery hook, line and sinker

Modi has climbed down from being the ‘Viraat Hindu Hriday Samrat’ to merely a ‘Vikas Purush’. The BJP has no other issue to take before the electorate than development. Both state and national highways are full of hoardings with the mandatory Modi cutout. Modi is usually seen with his hand raised pointing towards his ultimate destination choice: Delhi. Crores have been spent to keep the ‘Gujarat Shining’ image in the public mind. Modi does not need to communally polarise the electorate just yet, but if the past is any indicator, he can do that with considerable ease, if push comes to shove. Gujarati asmita will also be invoked and so will the generous bashing of the UPA government at the Centre, for releasing funds due to Gujarat, but in a step-motherly fashion. Another publicity tool deployed by Modi with varying degrees of success is the various “sammelans” of which the Sadbhavana fasts was one example.

Modi has recently embarked on a Swami Vivekananda Yuva Vichar Vikas Rath Yatra, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, whom he appropriates as the mascot, to connect with the youth. The rath is not decked with pictures of the BJP top leadership at the state or central level, only a profound looking Modi and a smiling Swami Vivekananda.

On the other hand, the Congress has to undermine the Modi regime’s non-inclusive development agenda. Electricity for farmers in rural areas is only for 6-8 hours (Modi claims Gujarat is a power surplus state). Fertiliser shortage and an acute shortage of water, both for drinking and agricultural purposes, have angered the farming community. Shortage of basic necessities such as rice, wheat, sugar, edible oil, pulses, kerosene and black marketing of these items at the PDS is also a source of great distress for APL and BPL families. Planning Commission statistics reveal that chronic malnutrition is rampant among Adivasi and Dalit families.

The BJP has also managed to infiltrate various vibrant cooperative structures and have succeeded in dismantling them as non-partisan institutions. Industries have been set up but they are largely capital-intensive, not labour-intensive. Very rarely do the local population benefit from these industries in terms of direct employment. While corruption among the lower bureaucracy is still rampant, Modi is still credited for running a relatively transparent and industry-friendly governance structure shorn of decision-making paralysis that plagues the UPA government at the Centre. The Congress is not able to effectively counter Modi’s massive publicity blitzkrieg.

It is difficult to hazard a guess as to what will be the ultimate poll outcome, but one thing is certain. The BJP is unlikely to repeat the 2007 performance. In all likelihood, the BJP will lose at least 10-15 seats from the current tally of 117. The BJP should get anywhere in the vicinity of 100. In case, Modi goes below the psychological 100 mark, that could well put paid to his prime ministerial ambitions.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

letters@tehelka.com

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