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The little dramas in Gujarat

Watching the State, one senses a different rhythm, a sense of anticipation, a need for difference

Politics is sometimes seen as more than a stage where a predictable plot plays out. It is seen as a drama reflecting broader dreams and interests, a sense not just of who wins but what the game is about. One senses this in the recent events around the Gujarat elections. Commentators reduce the recent challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an aberration of the Patels. The standard caste scenarios so readily available before the elections start playing out. Interests are no doubt important, and it is easy to portray them in a realist scientific language. But sometimes something more nebulous such as a sense of the political game becomes tacitly significant.

A new script?

Watching television, listening to expert insights between the sentences, one senses a mood of boredom about the BJP — maybe it is a boredom of its current inevitability. People want to see new stories, new characters, new scripts. They want to give all players “a chance”. The word chance is no longer an English word. It has been indigenised to mean a possibility of fairness, of luck, of an affirmative action in politics that allows other players an opportunity to show their mettle. Often as you talk of local candidates or a weak opposition the electorate would say, “They need a chance.” It is a sense of openness that sustains the quality of the political game and allows politics to often become the world of the unexpected. Watching Gujarat, especially Gujarati TV which is less linear than the English in allowing a play of body language and a sense of the vernacular, one senses a different rhythm, a sense of anticipation, a need for difference.

 

In fact, one can see it semiotically. One sees huge hoardings of Mr. Modi but he seems a distant god. The god might land up to announce a new ferry or spate of new projects. But as a hoarding he is stiff, remote and silent. He is an icon. Watching Rahul Gandhi, or Hardik Patel, one senses an animation, a new drive. Mr. Gandhi for a change looks fresh. The pink turban on his head suits him. There is a look of ease, of confidence, of having for once a new repertoire of tactics. It is not just the rumour around Alpesh Thakor, known locally for his organisation skills, or Mr. Patel’s announcement that he is open to the Congress. It is the tremor of gossip that winds are changing, that new possibilities might be signalled, the sense of playing with a different set of scenarios. It is like shuffling a set of sub-plots and being excited even if the main frame is predictable. In fact, one sees a reversal of positions, almost as if it is a mirage. Mr. Modi plays the incumbent of distant Delhi which he has so often demonised in the past, and Rahul plays the local challenger.

The development model

The little dramas around the BJP attempt to video Congress meetings, “offer” of bribes to Patel dissenters adds a touch of spice, a hint that the BJP is not as confident as earlier predicted. There is a dramatic energy to these situations. Mr. Gandhi for once seems content and capable in the driver’s seat. He looks fresh, well-groomed, well-shaved, holding forth confidently on demonetisation and GST. There is no longer a sense of fatalism, of the inevitability of defeat. The Congress at the local level has a few things to crow about, including performance in panchayat elections, thanks to the skill of its State unit chief Bharat Singh Solanki. The addition of Mr. Thakor vitaminises the party further. These are local chieftains from local territories who know local mathematics. It also highlights the unease among Thakors and Patels which might need fixing. Then there is Hardik Patel, a perpetual machine of dissent and dissatisfaction, casting doubts on whether Patels fit the Modi development model. One senses the emergence of a politics growing beyond resentment, a feeling that development in Mr. Modi’s world may not be as inclusive as he promises.

Watching these political tremors (or hiccups, depending on your perspective), one senses a demand for the different and the new. Beyond this one senses that the government has not only alienated a few dominant castes but is indifferent to Dalit feelings and sensibilities. The tremors of discontent combined with a new aura of competence the Congress has begun projecting conveys the possibility of a dramatic struggle. There is a sense that the local is emphasising its vitality again and as a wag put it, “A dogfight in Gandhinagar maybe more important than an election in Japan.”

Experts, used to the predictable grids of interest group politics, who believe caste has the supreme theme, might dismiss such speculation as trite and temporary. To this friends in Gujarat add that the Navnirman agitation too began as a flicker in the pan. But realistically, one senses that doubts about the economy and the spectre of unemployment that haunts the youth are creeping in. The BJP is seen as a split world, electorally formidable but economically incompetent. The stars are still there but the sky is getting dimmer. The dour pictures of Mr. Modi and Amit Shah inadvertently add to the gloom. The BJP might return to power at the Centre but a few upsets at the State level might add space to the future of regional politics.

But there is a symbolic challenge here that we must examine. Gujarat today is iconic of the BJP. A change in vote share, even marginal, might bruise not just the political egos of the Modi-Shah combine, but make the BJP feel less symbolically confident and less all knowing. They will be seen as bumblers of electoral math on home territory, a crime the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) may not forgive the BJP for. It might create a buzz in national politics, catalyse the voter into thinking about side bets and alternatives. The immediate impact on the electoral fate of parties may not be so important. One senses the BJP effort to make assurance double sure in its attempts to offload a bonanza of lakhs of crores on the economy.

A collective exercise

The Election Commission has announced polling on December 9 and 14. The problem of time, one must admit, adds a realism to speculation and daydreams. The Congress does not have too much time to sanitise itself. The BJP, on the other hand has the RSS ready as an electoral machine. Simultaneously it has created networks of patronage that go deep into Gujarati society. Yet I think the recent winds of change are important. Sometimes a set of tremors tells you more about long-range geology than a return to normal. Somewhere one senses that there are chinks in the BJP armour, that a clever strategy might drive deeper wedges into its vote banks in the future. It is time the sages, shamans and planners of the Congress read the future to plan their strategies for the present. Mr. Gandhi is young enough for such a game. But more importantly, this has to be a collective exercise. One needs a panchayat of thinkers to tap into fresh problems on the ground and integrate it all into the making of policy. It will be disappointing if when the voter is ready, the Congress after a fortnight of resurgence were to return to its tired ways, content with glories of the past, oblivious to the fact that it has not been in power for decades in Gujarat.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:43:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-little-dramas-in-gujarat/article19934224.ece

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