Rural Gujarat is in distress and today more and more people seem willing to speak out against Narendra Modi. Yet even his detractors say he will win
You should go to Gujarat only if you can will yourself to dismiss the contrarian signals: Because in the land of Narendra Modi, anything that mars the big picture, which is Narendra Modi himself, can be a red herring.
So much so, even the grouch with the litany of complaints — oh yes, he exists and his tribe is growing — will say in the end that much as he wishes otherwise, nothing can stop the three-time Chief minister from winning again. Apparently, the only point of curiosity in election 2012 is whether Modi will hold his current tally of 117 of 182 Assembly seats or fall behind it and, if the latter, by how much.
The 2007 scenario
I stepped into the Modi minefield in the 2007 Assembly election when the theoretical odds seemed stacked against the Chief Minister. In September of that year, Saurashtra, accounting for 54 seats, had risen in revolt against Modi; in a spectacle quite at odds with the picture of bounty and happiness that was Gujarat in the publicity brochures, over 5 lakh farmers had gathered in Rajkot, denouncing the Chief Minister for leaving them to rot while he ministered to the business-affluent classes. “We will finish you,” the milling, surging crowds vowed, their war-cry echoing off the power corridors of Gandhinagar.
As elections neared, the underclass, their wretchedness revealed in their tattered clothing and the lines on their faces, turned up in hordes to hear Sonia Gandhi. The numbers, formed by Gujarat’s poor, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, seemed ranged on her side. This not counting Modi’s own not inconsiderable problems. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose cadre worked on the ground to deliver votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party, was deeply discomfited by the growing personality cult around Gujarat’s Chief Minister: The sangh’s once disciplined, devoted foot-soldier was now an icon who inspired hysteria and revelled in it too. An influential local RSS leader told me that Modi had crossed the line on a fundamental sangh belief: vyakti se paksh mahan, paksh se desh mahan (party is greater than person, country is greater than party). Modi as an autonomous power centre also upset sections of the administration, from ministers and bureaucrats to lower level staff, police personnel and teachers. The latter manned the election machinery and conventional wisdom had it that you didn’t win elections by alienating them.
On the other hand, there was Modi’s incredible chemistry with the voters, visible at all his rallies. They wore Modi masks, waved his posters and roared in approval as he made off-colour jokes about Sonia and the Congress. On counting day, the arithmetic came apart. The policeman who had called up a day earlier to tell me “Hitler is losing,” was untraceable. The RSS was numb with shock, and most unbelievably, it was a near clean-sweep for Modi in dissenting Saurashtra. Like Indira Gandhi, Modi had dispensed with party and government — in his case also the sangh — and connected directly with the people. The crowds that attended the Congress chief’s rallies had no one to vote for in the Congress whose local leadership was diminished even more by Modi’s towering presence.
Returning to Gujarat five years later, I’m struck by the far wider rich-poor gulf. Ahmedabad exemplifies Shining Gujarat, with showrooms and shopping plazas to rival the best in Europe. The beautified Sabarmati Riverfront is a captivating sight that is the regime’s newest pride. Happy stories greet the visiting journalist on the mofussil stops along the super highway from the State Capital to Rajkot in Saurashtra. “Narendrabhai, Narendrabhai” chant little children as their parents gush about the rewards of having Modi as Chief Minister: uninterrupted power supply, adequate water, pucca roads, houses, strife and fear-free environment and, above all, a leader who fans the fires of Gujarati asmita (identity) . At Sangani in Chotila, Sarpanch Waghabhai Danabhai describes Modi as a God-send to Gujarat. Next door, Bharatbhai, who is unemployed, gives Modi 130 seats, up 13 from 2007, and insists that after this election, he would be unstoppable on the road to Delhi and Prime Ministership. Bharatbhai is unbothered by his own jobless state.
Off the highway into rural Saurashtra, the narrative changes gradually, yet dramatically — from striking prosperity and raging Modi-mania to poorer habitations and robust Modi-bashing. This is also Keshubhai country. The BJP veteran and now leader of the Gujarat Parivartan Party, had sided with the Congress in 2007 only for his dream to go up in smoke. His Leva Patel community preferred Modi to the Congress. Now his hope is that the GPP will tap into the anger which had no outlet then.
Indeed, in the deeper interiors the shine entirely comes off Gujarat’s magnificent bijli, paani, sadak (power, water, roads) story, told and retold by Modi, and magnified online and offline by his manic fan clubs. Patchy and potholed roads are quite the norm here. The villages here could be from impoverished Uttar Pradesh, judging by the dusty, arid landscape, rundown homes, dark, dank shops, and turbaned men sitting around in groups, their foreheads creased in anxiety over the persistent drought conditions and what that means for their cotton crop. The luckier villages here get water once in three days for 15-odd minutes, others wait up to a week or more. Modi has promised a massive irrigation project for the region but what looms large for now is acute water scarcity made worse by reduced job prospects and runaway prices of essentials.
For Premjibhai, who works as a daily wager on the cotton fields, no water means almost no money to take home. “Vikas (development)? What vikas? Can’t you see the conditions here? Modi speaks for the rich and they speak for him. I hope Keshubhai defeats Modi but it won’t happen because Modi is too clever.”
Industrialised North Gujarat has always boasted a healthy bottom line, and this is reflected in the region’s admiration for Modi. “Sautaka (hundred per cent) he will win,” is a familiar one-liner in these parts. But here too there are strong anti-Modi voices, and as in Saurashtra, he is portrayed as the rich man’s Chief Minister without a care for the poor and the marginalised. At Nugar village in Becharaji, Mehsana, Ganpatbhai, a destitute lower-caste tailor rants against Modi, “Write this down,” he shouts, charging with his fists at the Sarpanch who tries to shut him up, “the darji jaat [tailor caste] doesn’t get plots. Modi is a capitalist surrounded by rich industrialists. And the village headmen are in league with him.” As I leave, Ganpatbhai says grumpily, “I know Modi will win.”
Why is Modi’s victory treated as a given? Is it because the Congress in Gujarat is in abject surrender? Or is it because people have been conditioned not to see beyond Modi? The magic Modi works on his audience is to be seen to be believed. Modi was scheduled to address an election meeting on October 9 at 7 p.m. in Ahmedabad. He arrived at 10 p.m. to frenzied crowds asking for more — and more. An hour earlier, BJP managers had flung poll memorabilia at them: Modi masks, Modi posters, Modi gloves, Modi T-shirts, bandana, scarves and the works. If the sight of ordinary men turning in an instant into thousands of Modis, waving thousands of Modi posters, was unnerving, the music that pumped them up — relating the gatha (story) of Gujarat and Modi — was infinitely more scary, macho, muscular and intended to induce fear and admiration.
As the crowds grew restive, the organisers pressed other resources into service: high-ranking party functionaries eulogised Modi, a folk singer compared him to Shivaji, Prithviraj Chauhan and Vivekananda. But the masked men would have none of it. “Not you, not you” they cried, as a line-up of partymen competed to paint Modi in hagiographic shades. Modi finally arrived, giving the audience their paisa-wasool moment. He mocked at Sonia and Manmohan Singh, knowing that would elicit the laughs. And he thundered and rallied — “Pradhan Mantriji, don’t you dare trifle with Gujarat” — knowing that would stir the Gujarati pride, his ever-ever formula for success.
India was Indira and Indira was India. But in Gujarat today, every Gujarati is Modi. Or so you are told by Modi himself. His blog, narendramodi.in, says: “In the by lanes of Gujarat’s towns and cities, on the fields of Gujarat, on the coasts of Gujarat, people [are] taking pride in saying one thing — Hoon to Modi No Manas Chu [I am Modi’s person!]” No BJP here. Only Modi.
As in 2007, so in 2012, perhaps more so this time: Saurashtra is angry, the RSS is openly backing Keshubhai, who now has his own party — even a few seats lost in Saurashtra would be a setback for Modi — and there is disaffection within the Gujarat administration. But 58 per cent of Gujarat is urban which is Modi’s strength. The Modi speed machine overrode all obstacles in 2007. What now? Over to December 20, 2012.