The Iron man Begins to rust


It’s not just the Muslims. Patels, displaced farmers, Sindhis and even right-wing fanatics have turned their backs on Narendra Modi. Rana Ayyub reports on why the Gujarat strongman is facing his toughest election battle yet

Running dry The much-touted Narmada canal has failed to benefit all farmers
Running dry The much-touted Narmada canal has failed to benefit all farmers

JUST BEFORE the Navratra celebrations, Chief Minister Narendra Modi addressed a meeting of senior Gujarat BJP members in Nabhoi village. In attendance were the 500 most important functionaries of the party from Gujarat. The venue was significant. Nabhoi is a stronghold of the Kadva Patels, at the centre of attention in Gujarat. On the podium were close confidants of Modi and a life-size portrait of Swami Vivekananda found prominent display.

Under pressure Narendra Modi is facing a multi-pronged attack in the run-up to the December Assembly election
Under pressure Narendra Modi is facing a multi-pronged attack in the run-up to the December Assembly election
Photo: Mayur Bhatt

Seated in the first few rows was an MP from the state known for his opposition to Modi. As the chief minister rose to speak, the MP whispered to the person next to him that Modi would cry while delivering his speech. The news spread across the room, whisper to whisper. Some laughed it off; others waited, curious to know if the prediction would come true.

Modi did not disappoint; he recollected a quote of Swami Vivekananda and a tear dropped from his right eye. As if on cue, the cameras zoomed in on him as he wiped his eye with a linen kerchief. The stunned neighbour turned searchingly towards the MP. The latter laughed. “In Gujarat,” he said, “our seniors, including the likes of Ashok Bhatt, have resorted to the same tactic when they seemed to have been losing ground among their own men.”

It’s an interesting anecdote coming as it does in the wake of opinion polls that give Modi a sweeping victory in Gujarat. State Intelligence Bureau officers, however, are foretelling only a narrow win. There is no doubt the odds are in favour of India’s most controversial politician, but as TEHELKA toured Gujarat, some factors pointed to the unpredictable nature of politics. It is possible that a different picture may emerge.

Shrewd as he is, Modi has sensed the possible pitfalls. So, while his public relations machinery went overboard playing up the visit of British High Commissioner James Bevan, the man himself made a hasty visit to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur just a day before Bevan arrived. A fitness freak and religious man, Modi broke a rule he had set himself. Known to fast for nine days during the Navratra festival and abstaining from leaving Gandhinagar, he made an exception for Nagpur. Why?

His concern was that the mood on the ground was changing. In 2002, the Gujarat riots and religious polarisation had won the BJP a thumping victory. In 2007 the “maut ka saudagar” statement backfired on the Congress. But today, the BJP, or rather Modi, is caught in the complexities he himself has created. In 2002, newspapers such as Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar were labelled Modi’s pamphlets by critics. Today, their headlines lampoon him. “Troubled Narendra Modi runs to Nagpur with his can of worries” said Gujarat Samachar. Other newspapers, which till recently were toeing the government line, seem to have become “neutral”.

Recently, Modi came across the editor of a newspaper that has started carrying scathing editorials. The editor was subjected to a rather terse remark: “I’m told you are not keeping well. Take good care of your health, you will need it to write against me.”

MODI’S ATTEMPTS to woo voters are in full throttle. Radio advertisements talk of the UPA government selling the country by inviting FDI in retail and being anti-farmer. But here is where Modi’s real problem lies. Here is where the Congress has decided to focus all its attention. Here is where BJP rebel Keshubhai Patel and his new political entity have chosen to hit Modi.

Rebel yell Keshubhai Patel could prove to be a tough challenger to Modi
Rebel yell Keshubhai Patel could prove to be a tough challenger to Modi
Photo: Mayur Bhatt

At an election rally in the BJP stronghold of Bhavnagar, Congress leaders gathered an impressive crowd of 4,000 people. In the old days, a chunk of the crowd would have comprised Muslims, who make up 30 percent of Bhavnagar’s population. Much against expectations, the audience was a combination of cattle traders, farmers and disgruntled local villagers, including Talatis and Patels, castes being wooed by Keshubhai’s Gujarat Parivartan Party. Congress MP Jagdish Thakur said, “Narendra Modi talks of Miya Musharraf, but why should the farmers of Saurashtra care for Miya Musharraf? They should be concerned about taxes, subsidies and returns.” The audience roared.

Surprisingly, none of the three Gujarat Congress leaders present on the dais raised the 2002 issue or tried wooing the minorities. This could either reap benefits for the Congress or backfire and is a risk they run. Indeed, Congress leaders in Gujarat have chosen to maintain a stoic silence over the participation of Modi’s lieutenant Amit Shah, the former home minister charged with masterminding fake encounters, in Modi’s election management. “We have decided we will focus on issues like pension plan, on widows’ empowerment, on corruption, on the VAT on diesel and petrol,” says Shaktisinh Gohil, the Leader of the Opposition. He brushes aside talk of division in the Congress ranks and of the alleged chief ministerial ambitions of people such as Shankarsinh Vaghela.

Gujarat’s Sindhi community, though not sizeable in number, is talking in whispers about Modi’s betrayal

The Gujarat Congress has been seen as the party’s weakest unit. Though the party has sought to keep its internal squabbles aside till the elections, the show of strength at election rallies does not seem enough to counter Modi’s charismatic appeal, especially to the woman voter. But it’s here that Modi’s PR machine seems to be losing on two fronts — the Keshubhai challenge and a Congress that has decided to use the same marketing gimmicks to target the middle-class voter.

Free and low-cost housing to unemployed and poor women is an example. The announcement saw long queues outside Congress offices. For the first time, Modi was forced to launch an offensive against the Congress he had been dismissive about. Sonia Gandhi, who chose to begin her campaign from Rajkot, too seemed to have been advised about the wave that had gripped Gujarat. Unlike 2007, there were no references to Sohrabuddin Sheikh or the 2002 riots.

TRUE, THE disclosures made by Arvind Kejriwal about Robert Vadra and BJP chief Nitin Gadkari and the subsequent media exposé have indeed brought the discourse back to corruption. Suggestions are being made that it was the Modi-sympathetic group in the RSS that was behind the disclosures against the Gandhi family and Gadkari. An RSS insider says, “Narendra Modi knows the art of playing his games. Do not be surprised if tomorrow he wins by a narrow margin and pins the blame on corruption accusations against senior party leaders.”

While Kejriwal might have chosen not to mention the findings of the CAG reports against the Modi government, lawyer Anand Yagnik has not been quiet. Yagnik is the petitioner for villagers affected by the Adani Group’s Mundra Port Special Economic Zone (MPSEZ). He has got a stay order on the project from the Supreme Court and believes Modi will be caught in his net of corruption. “He will talk of 2G,” says Yagnik, “but what’s happening in Gujarat is worse than 2G, and it’s happening every day.” The reference is to the MPSEZ. A fact-finding team lead by environmentalist Sunita Narain is assessing the project now.

“Modi’s corruption does not need analysts,” says Yagnik. “Here 189 million sq m have been sold to the Adani Group at the rate of Rs 11 per sq m. The market value was Rs 1,100 per sq m. All Modi has to do is answer the public of Gujarat as to why land was given at throwaway rates.” Yagnik is stunned by the silence of the Congress, but believes that it will be an issue the new-generation Gujarati will keep in mind.

Activist Mukul Sinha of the Jan Sangharsh Manch has been a petitioner in the 2002 riots cases as well as the fake encounters cases. He says the pro-Modi wave in Gujarat has changed direction: “The Narmada canal is hailed as one of the biggest achievements by Narendra Modi, but why does he not talk of its failure to benefit the farmers of Dholka, Bavla, Sanand taluka, etc? These are agrarian areas and these farmers will now seal his fate.”

Flawed priorities Big industry has thrived in Modi’s Gujarat, but often at the cost of displaced farmers
Flawed priorities Big industry has thrived in Modi’s Gujarat, but often at the cost of displaced farmers
Photo: Reuters

Activists and analysts say if one were to take a careful look at the big decisions taken by the Modi government, they seem to have furthered the cause of big industry. Modi plays this up as a sign of ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, but none of the benefits have trickled down to the farmers and labourers, many of whom belong to the Leuva and Kadva Patel communities. These voters are now being wooed by Keshubhai.

Villages in Saurashtra and northern Gujarat are a glaring example of apathy. Mohan Solanki, a farmer in Junagadh, launches a scathing attack on Modi: “I don’t travel by international flights. So I guess I don’t know about development… There is a rage among farmers about the jantri prices (minimum price at which land is sold). Farmers across Rajkot, Amreli and Junagadh were asked to sell their surplus land at jantri rates. The government then declared them Special Economic Zones and the rates went up 10 times. Now we can’t afford our own land. So, is this development?”

A recent survey gave Keshubhai just one seat, but a close look at the 40-odd seats in Amreli, Junagadh and Rajkot shows a clear shift in the attitude of farmers as they come out in huge numbers to the BJP rebel’s meetings. “The cadres are with him,” says a VHP insider. “they will galvanise the farmers to vote for Keshubhai.”

A RECENT piece by market watchers Sonali Ranade and Shaelja Sharma examined the progress made by Modi’s Gujarat and came out with startling facts. In their report (see box for Planning Commission figures) they stated:



























“From 1981 through to 1998, Gujarat was the top performing state in terms of economic growth, much before Modi took over as CM in October 2001. In the period ’91 to ’98, over seven years, Gujarat’s growth rate was 9.57 percent, a good 156 basis points over its nearest rival, Maharashtra. Over the 10 years that Modi has been at the helm, Maharashtra has closed the gap from 156 basis points to just 38 basis points. The other large states have done even better relative to Gujarat under Modi in closing the gap. Hence, three points need to be kept in mind.

1. Gujarat was one of the better performing states in the 1980s, much before Modi came on the scene.

2. Gujarat’s economic performance went up because of economic reforms, almost doubling growth between 1991-98, again before Modi took over in October 2001.

3. Modi’s tenure over 10 years hasn’t done much to step up Gujarat’s growth, either in relation to its own past performance, or relative to the performance of other similarly larger states.”

It’s these misplaced notions of Modi’s economic growth and excesses of arrogance that have turned even one-time fans against him. Devendra Patel, political writer forSandesh, gave a lucid example: “Two-hundred years ago, Ahmedabad’s businessmen traded in silk with China; Narendra Modi was not born then. Hundred years ago, the topmost textile mills in Gujarat were set up; Modi was not born then. Fifty years ago, Gujarat got Amul; Modi was a kid then. Thirty years ago, the largest fertiliser plants were set up in Bhavnagar and Ankleshwar; Modi was not active in politics. So, who should stake claim for Gujarat’s progress is anyone’s guess.”

Another newspaper editor was even more sarcastic: “Modi must know that both Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi were on the cover of TIME magazine. Neither was the top actress of their time, but managed to be there courtesy the sensation they created. Modi too is just a sensation. The reality will soon bite the Gujarati voter.”

AS GUJARAT celebrates Navratra, its cities are a picture of revelry, with State-sponsored garba events. It is nine days of fasting, praying and celebration for Gujarat. The GMDC grounds in Ahmedabad offer a similar picture. But this time, there are no life-size pictures of Modi, as one saw earlier. Instead, there are symbols that Modi has marketed on Twitter. Swami Vivekananda dominates every government event. From being a mere Hindu leader, Modi wants to become the centre of a cult, it appears, with his speeches aired 24/7 on NaMo TV, a channel promoted by his adherents.

‘Modi will talk of 2G, but what’s happening in Gujarat is worse than 2G, and it’s happening every day,’ says lawyer Yagnik

The Congress is countering this. For the first time in three elections, the Gujarat Congress seems to have beaten Modi in the media game. As Gujaratis enter cinema halls, a twominute campaign plays out before the movie begins. It is a satire depicted by Gujarati actors on the lack of initiatives for the middle class and the youth — 40 percent of Gujarat’s voters. As the ad comes to an end, a hand (the Congress symbol) appears on the screen. The crowd breaks into a cheer.

In Ahmedabad itself, the hub of Modi’s popularity and a BJP stronghold, there are signs of dissidence. While delimitation will become a common problem for both the Congress and the BJP, with over 60 of the 182 constituencies having undergone changes, at least 40 percent seats will be a test of Modi’s Sadbhavana or effort at reconciliation.

Modi wants to walk the tightrope of soft Hindutva and development as well as of acceptance across faiths. However, he is ending up contradicting himself. In October,The Times of India in Ahmedabad ran a front-page story that said, “I’m a Khan and I adore Modi.” The statement was made by onetime Youth Congress worker and party spokesperson Asifa Khan who had joined the BJP. While her joining the BJP was no major addition, the show of leaving behind the communal face backfired for Modi. Controversial Deoband leader GA Vastanvi, till 2011 projected as an example of Modi winning over minorities, used the occasion to ridicule him in public. Vastanvi, speaking at a Congress event in Gujarat, lashed out at Modi for having brought only partial development.

Modi’s attempt to bring in the likes of Asifa Khan was a result of his awareness that post-delimitation there are 40 seats in the Ahmedabad area alone. Every fifth voter in these seats is a Muslim. While Modi did not field a single Muslim candidate in 2002 and 2007, he is now being forced to consider either Muslim or ‘neutral’ candidates in seats once considered Hindutva strongholds.

Modi wants to walk the tightrope of soft Hindutva and development as well as of acceptance across faiths

The starkest example is Khadia, the hub of the RSS that has now become Jamalpur Khadia, with 61 percent Muslim votes. As a result, two of Modi’s closest lieutenants, Amit Shah and Anandiben Patel — who have a rivalry between them as well — are eyeing Naranpura and Ghatlodia, the only seats with hardly any Muslim voters.

Shah has previously helped Modi galvanise cadres during elections. He faces the sword in the Sohrabuddin and Tulsi Prajapati encounter cases, and is out on bail. He has come back to Gujarat to manage Modi’s election campaign, but has ended up spelling trouble. He is weighing in on Modi to announce him as the candidate from Ghatlodia, which is also being eyed by Anandiben, who wants to escape her old seat of Patan.

DELIMITATION HAS altered the political landscape in other significant constituencies too. Dani Limda (48 percent Muslim vote), Dariapur (46 percent), Vejalpur (35 percent) and Bapunagar (28 percent) have become tough for the BJP. However, Modi’s attempt at wooing them does not seem to have gone down well with Muslims.

Qadribhai is a driver from Juhapura, a Muslim-dominated ghetto in Ahmedabad that saw some of the worst violence in 2002. He still considers Modi a pariah: “Fielding Muslim names won’t have an impact on us. All of us know that these Muslim names can easily be brought, just like the skull-cap wearing people in his Sadbhavana Yatra.”

But Modi’s Sadbhavana trouble does not limit itself to Muslims. In Amraiwadi, an area that post-delimitation has come under Modi’s constituency of Maninagar, lives a sizeable population of north Indian migrants. At a recent function of Hindi bhashis (speakers) in Ahmedabad, speeches laced with vitriol were directed at Modi. Speakers owing allegiance to the VHP called on north Indians to defeat Modi, who they announced had now become the Raj Thackeray of Gujarat.

“Tumne jis saanp ko doodh pilaaya wohi tumhein das raha hai (The snake you once fed milk is now biting you),” screeched Jayaprakash Chaturvedi as he welcomed Keshubhai to the stage. “Woh tumse tumhari bhasha cheen raha hai, Gujarati bolne wale ka hith hi Gujarat ka hith hai toh asmita kahan gayi (He’s snatching your language. If Gujarat is only for Gujarati speakers, then where is your pride?)” Chaturvedi openly supported Babu Bajrangi, indicted in the 2002 riots case. Modi had “only his interest in mind, not the Hindu interest”, said Chaturvedi.

The Sindhi community, though not sizeable in number, is talking in whispers about Modi’s betrayal. At a Sindhi community gathering in Bopal, there was palpable anger at the conviction of Maya Kodnani. Yogesh Panjwani, a local businessman, said: “If he could save Amit Shah, why not Mayaben? She will not be slaughtered for his ambition. Hum kehte hain agar Sindhi ko PM banana hai, toh is aadmi ko CM ki post se hatana hoga(For a Sindhi to become the PM, this man must be removed from the CM’s post).”

The last words of dissent come from a community that is clearly not part of Vibrant Gujarat. Forty kilometres from Bhavnagar is Alang, Asia’s largest ship-breaking yard, home to 6,000 workers. It is now in revolt. The workers, many of them non-Gujaratis and from Odisha and West Bengal, are suffering due to toxic chemicals. There is only one hospital in the area, 15 km from the shipyard.

Perhaps Modi’s Sadbhavana does not extend to these workers. They may not be his voters, but they speak for a growing disquiet at his ways. They speak for why election 2012 could be a close call for Modi.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.


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