Vidya Subrahmaniam

The ground situation in Saurashtra and in the tribal areas does not permit the assumption that Narendra Modi will have a second consecutive sweep.

Election prediction is tough in Gujarat — not because the State is complex in a way, say, Uttar Pradesh is, but because the legend of Narendra Modi is a constant pressure against objective analysis. The Chief Minister’s political opponents — and their numbers are growing at a pace that must alarm him — may exult at his “imminent ouster” but most neutral observers baulk at writing him off.

With Mr. Modi’s fabled invincibility repeatedly thrown at her, the visiting journalist must proceed ever so cautiously. In Ahmedabad especially, the mandatory warning follows any suggestion that the Chief Minister could be more vulnerable than appears from an urban perspective: “Never, never underestimate Modi.” The words are said in a mix of awe and fear, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had started on my journey quite prepared to return with the finding that a second consecutive Modi-sweep was unavoidable. Yet the ground situation in the areas I travelled in — Saurashtra and parts of the central tribal belt comprising Godhra, Deogadh Baria, Panchmahals, and Vadodara — permitted no such assumption. Saurashtra was visibly hostile to the Chief Minister. The mood in the tribal areas, which witnessed some of the worst anti-Muslim violence in 2002, was more difficult to assess. Three factors counted here: the shift of a large section of the tribal vote from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2002 Assembly election, the steady inroads made by Hindutva forces over the past two decades, and the Congress’ resurgence in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

Simmering anger

A visit to the Tribal Academy in Tejgadh followed by informal stops in the surrounding villages disclosed a measure of support for the kamal ka phool (lotus). But there was also simmering anger against the BJP for the way it was seen to have exploited tribal susceptibility. The tribal participation in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, the subject of much intellectual agonising in Delhi and elsewhere, is recalled with shame in these parts, and the emotion bursts forth like a torrent: “He [Modi] used us against Muslims during the riots, and then sent us to jail for it.”

Saurashtra provided two occasions to test Mr. Modi’s popularity. The first came in the form of an anti-Modi dissident rally in Rajkot, the unofficial capital of the region. The second was the celebrated Trinetshwar Mahadev mela. Held annually in the rural environs of Tarnetar in Surendranagar district, the mela is a colourful affair attended in huge numbers by tribals and OBCs such as Rabaris and Kolis. Rajkot and Tarnetar offer different yet valuable insights into the mind of the Gujarati voter.

The intra-BJP rebellion against Mr. Modi is hardly a new feature in Gujarat. The dissidents, mostly from the powerful Leuva Patel community (the smaller Kadva Patel sub-group is with Mr. Modi), have railed against Mr Modi for some years now, their resentment flowing chiefly from the manner of the former Chief Minister, Keshubhai Patel’s removal in 2001. For all this, the dissidents never really made an impact. Hindu sentiment post-Godhra forced them to back Mr. Modi in the 2002 Assembly election. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the BJP suffered reverses in Saurashtra but a post-poll survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed 75 per cent Patel support for Mr. Modi — the highest he received from any community.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Modi treated the rebels with contempt. With the anti-Modi resistance revealing itself to be a campaign lacking in popular support, the BJP leadership too ignored the demand for Mr. Modi’s removal, punishing instead those who made the demand .The credibility of the rebels was also in doubt, led as they were by Gordhan Zadaphia, Mr. Modi’s Home Minister at the time of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. Against this background, Mr. Zadaphia’s threat to dislodge Mr. Modi seemed typically a boast from a malcontent nursing a personal grudge.

In the event, the rebels served up a whopper in Rajkot. The three lakh attendance at the khedut mahasammelan (farmers’ mega meet) was not just an all-time record for Rajkot, it was the biggest anyone had seen in Gujarat. More importantly, Mr. Zadaphia and co were not the only ones thundering against Mr. Modi. Also on the dais were diamond merchants, prominent industrialists, BJP MPs and MLAs, ordinary party workers, not to mention a dozen or so Congress leaders. Speaker after speaker called upon the audience to vote out Mr. Modi and vote in the Congress. By afternoon, farmers in traditional Gujarati wear had occupied every square inch of Rajkot, creating a gigantic traffic jam that took all night to clear. Restaurants en route to the city ran out of food.

A quick check on the rally threw up interesting facts. Those on the dais were mostly upper caste Leuva Patels. A handful belonged to the OBC Koli community — the largest caste group in Gujarat at about 20 per cent. The audience of farmers seemed to be split in the same proportion. They had come from across Saurashtra, on foot, in tractors, spilling out of buses, and packed into trucks. This was an impressive showing even assuming a section had turned up merely out of curiosity. A spot survey showed pervasive anti-Modi sentiment. In the case of Leuva Patels, this was compounded by a kinship feeling towards Mr. Keshubhai Patel, “next only to Sardar Patel” in stature but “humiliated” by a BJP leadership more keen on Mr. Modi.

That the rally reflected the larger mood in Saurashtra was evident on the journey from Rajkot to Ahmedabad via Junagadh and Surendranagar. Leuva Patels on this stretch complained bitterly of discrimination by the Chief Minister. As proof they cited the absence of Leuva Patels in positions of importance in government and in the party, which, “in a further slight” was headed by Purushottam Rupala — a Kadva Patel. In the villages, Leuva Patel farmers said they were singled out for harassment, and complained of inadequate electricity and other farm-related problems. An interesting feature of the Leuva Patel bitterness was that it was directed only against Mr. Modi. The community claimed overwhelming affinity to the BJP.

Koli resentment

The Koli resentment against Mr. Modi is of more recent origin and can be traced to a double incident of rape and murder that shook the community in mid-May. The two Koli girls had gone to a shrine in Junagadh where one of them was raped and the other killed. Today with the criminals still at large, the inconsolable Kolis are disillusioned with Mr. Modi and the BJP — a party they have largely been voting in the past 15 years.

Some of the anger was visible at the Tarnetar mela which came to a close with the visit of the Chief Minister. Mr. Modi waved to the crowds which refused to return the gesture, remaining sullen for all of the time he was there.

For the rebels, the biggest boost is surely the emergence from the shadows of Mr. Keshubhai Patel. At a recent function in Bhuj in the Kutch region, he called Mr. Modi a “dictator” comparable to “Adolf Hitler” and announced his decision not to campaign for the BJP.

As I returned to Ahmedabad, the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives for Mr. Modi in an election which the Gujarati intellectual class — barring a minuscule section — said the Chief Minister could find tough but which he would win anyway.