PM counted on communalism to ride over anti-incumbency

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced a key test of his popularity after a series of controversial economic reforms, like demonetisation and GST, in his home state where he built his political career. Modi built his reputation as a socio-economic reformer in the state of Gujarat, which grabbed limelight across the globe under his rule over the Vibrant Gujarat Summits and the series of administrative reforms in education, health and skill development sectors.

rahul-s-rally-in-bharuch_4252ee4c-db39-11e7-ad52-47d546f3ccd3677However, his attempt to implement radical reforms at the national level hurt the very constituency of traders and small business owners who were his biggest supporters in the western state. A big section of traders and small businessmen had been up in arms against the BJP since July this year when the GST came into force. There were a number of agitations across the state and local BJP leaders had to bear the brunt of their anger.

This seemed to have made the Gujarat BJP and Modi insecure and more desperate for victory. The anger among its core vote base coupled with the 22-year anti-incumbency wave gave a boost to the opposition Congress.

The Congress campaign headed by the party’s new president Rahul Gandhi — the man likely to challenge Modi for the country’s premiership in the next general election in 2019 — only added to the pressure on the prime minister. And this desperation led the BJP and Modi into putting the otherwise successful ‘development’ and ‘Gujarati pride’ agenda into the background and bringing to the fore the politics of fear and security and adding communal overtones to the political discourse.

Modi, in desperation, also went on to blame the Congress for conspiring with Pakistan to take down the BJP government in Gujarat. He accused his predecessor Dr. Manmohan Singh of meeting Pakistani officials at a “secret” meeting at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence a day before the latter’s controversial remark terming the Prime Minister “neech (a low life).”

“There were media reports about a meeting at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house in which Pakistan’s High Commissioner, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister, India’s former Vice-President and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were present,” Modi said on December 10 at an election rally at Palanpur in north Gujarat that was scheduled to vote in the second phase on December 14. “On one hand, Pakistan Army’s former DG is interfering in Gujarat’s election, on the other, Pakistani people are holding a secret meeting at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house and immediately after the meeting, people of Gujarat, backward communities, poor people and Modi were insulted. Don’t you think such events raise doubts here,” he said, suggesting that the Congress leader’s statement came after his meeting with Pakistan envoy and others.

Modi also claimed that there was an appeal by former Director General of Pakistan Army Sardar Arshad Rafiq for making senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel the chief minister of Gujarat. Congress veteran Ahmed Patel, however, dismissed the PM’s allegation saying that Modi abdicated the politics of development to win the Assembly polls in Gujarat.

“Does it befit the stature of the Prime Minister to rely on canards, rumours and lies just for an election? This is very sad,” said Patel, a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat and political advisor of Sonia Gandhi.

Just before Modi began his whirlwind campaign for a desperate Gujarat BJP, which was harping on the charisma of the PM, a three-minute video was doing rounds in the social media where a young voter goes to meet the candidate of his constituency seeking solution to a series of local problems. The candidate was seen sporting a saffron scarf and was seated in a chair when the educated youngster started a rapid fire round of questioning. He was taken aback when the candidate ranted how Gujarat would get a chief minister of the “other religion” if his party (BJP) was not voted to power, Pakistan would attack India, Opponents would sell Kashmir to Pakistan, no one would build the Ram temple in Ayodhya and how only his party (BJP) could provide security to the people. All these “nationalistic” concerns were in response to the burning issues that the youngster raised such as costly private education, poor health infrastructure and hyper local problems such as a garden promised 15 years ago still remaining on paper. The video had summed in short the discourse that was to follow during the election rallies by Modi and his close aide Amit Shah.

At a rally in Congress-dominated Jasdan town near Rajkot on November 27, Modi for the first time raked up the issue of communal riots, albeit those which happened during Congress rule in Gujarat before BJP assumed power in 1995. “Remember Gujarat before 2002. Petty things like kite flying or a small accident were enough to trigger clashes. Before coming to Ahmedabad, people had to call up and confirm if the situation was peaceful. They were not sure whether going back at night was safe,” Modi said, adding that BJP was the only party which cared for the security of the common man. For the record, BJP had won Jasdan only twice in two decades, that too in by-polls.

DQbqIXSUIAAB3jPTwo days later, Modi stormed temple town Palitana, the biggest pilgrimage place of Jains, in Bhavnagar district. Here too he reminded people how communal riots had broken out in Bhavnagar city at least seven times in 10 years during the Rath Yatras. And how, not a single month went by when rioting did not happen in Gujarat during the Congress’ rule.

“Do you want those days to return or want to live a peaceful and harmonious life,” he asked the crowd, and promised that no innocent person will be killed if BJP won. Again, for the record, Palitana has a significant population of Muslims in the town, in fact much more than Jains. Three years ago, BJP-ruled municipality had passed a resolution banning non-vegetarian food in the town, apparently under pressure from Jains. The issue reached the high court that stayed the civic body order.

Besides Modi, Shah and chief minister Vijay Rupani too laced their election speeches with communal riots and curfews during Congress rule.

However, Congress strategically did not counter the BJP’s rhetoric with talk of the post-Godhra riots, knowing well that it could backfire and turn a nemesis for the party. The saffron leaders unleashed a barrage of criticism against Rahul Gandhi and questioned his religion after a controversy erupted during his visit to the Somnath temple in the state. Rahul’s associate mentioned him as a non-Hindu in the temple register; it is mandatory for any non-Hindu entering the temple to write their name and religion in this separate register.

The Congress instead decided to watch from a distance as Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel seemed to be doing this job for them, breaking the myths about BJP’s development claims in his own style that was packed with humour and sarcasm.

Interestingly, the Patidars, who once voted overwhelmingly for BJP in the backdrop of the post-Godhra riots, this time openly hit out at Modi for raising the communal bogey. “There haven’t been curfews and riots in BJP rule simply because the perpetrators are in power now,” Hardik said caustically at a massive rally in Rajkot early this month. Hardik had also warned his community that Modi would do anything including “Hindu-Muslim (riots)” to win the elections and asked his community not be swayed even if the PM sheds tears.

Another indicator of Modi’s desperate attempts, besides the rant on communal rioting, was accusing Congress of fanning the caste divide. His anger stemmed from the fact that Patidars, a section of OBCs and Dalits extended political support to the Congress.

BJP and Modi had been accusing Congress of taking support of the three caste leaders — Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakore — and resorting to the old Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim (KHAM) theory propounded by former external affairs minister Madhavsinh Solanki, which took Congress to a record victory in Gujarat in 1985; except for the fact, that this time there was no M or Muslim in the equation.

However, Modi raked up a three-decade-old incident of a bloody caste massacre near Mangadh village of Bhavnagar during his Palitana rally which did not go down well with the Kshatriya and Patidar communities. In 1984, Kshatriyas had gunned down 11 Patidars, including one woman, to avenge the killing of three of their community men, in Chomal village near Mangadh. Though Modi did not name the communities, the Gohilwad Rajput Samaj, an organization of Kshatriyas, said that it was unnecessary to dust up an issue which had been buried in past. “Both Kshatriyas and Patidars are living in peace and harmony by forgetting that bloody past. Why rake up the incident now when even the families have forgotten about it?” said Vasudev Gohil, president of the organization.

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