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Modi’s Hindutva vs Vaghela’s soft saffron

Ahmedabad, Dec. 9: An eight-column front-page spread in the leading Gujarati newspaper, Gujarat Samachar, today is divided into a six-column picture of the crowd in Mehsana on Sunday and a two-column one of Sonia Gandhi, fist raised, pallu over the head.

The report below the pictures is headlined “Where is the promise to make Gujarat free of hunger, fear and corruption'” The headline, also in eight columns, is a quote from her speech. The Congress president was poking fun at the BJP, which went to the last Assembly polls promising to rid Gujarat of these demons.

Even six months ago, some of the Gujarati newspapers were seen to be one-sided. The Editors’ Guild in its report castigated two leading Gujarati newspapers for their anti-Muslim and pro-Sangh stories that were said to have fuelled the fire during the post-Godhra riots.

Narendra Modi’s gamble with the Hindutva card will be tested in the polls next week, but it has not worked with Gujarat Samachar, the state’s largest-selling newspaper, which is said to have a circulation of 9 lakh.

From being uncritical of the Sangh earlier to being critical of Modi in the run-up to the polls — as the readers of the paper now find it — the point the Gujarat Samachar makes is that it is possible in Gujarat today to be pro-Hindutva and yet be anti-Modi. That is also the rationale behind Shankersinh Vaghela’s soft saffron card.

Till last week, political and social activists, who have gathered here from different parts of the country to campaign against the Modi regime, were finding it difficult to get newspaper hawkers who would distribute their handbills along with the morning dailies.

The hawkers had been advised by VHP activists to carry only their political literature.

“The newsagent used to refuse flatly,” says Father Cedric Prakash, from whose Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace many of these activists now operate. “But since the last two days, the hawkers have been willing to distribute our leaflets.”

Says Shabnam Hashmi, who has come here from Delhi: “We have distributed 50 lakh leaflets so far from 50 nodal points across the state.”

Hashmi and Father Cedric point to the changing stance of the Gujarat Samachar and the cooperation of the hawkers to stretch their point farther — there is an anti-Modi sentiment.

On CG Road in the heart of Ahmedabad, Rahul Solanki, who runs a cybercafe, says he will vote for the BJP because he knows the candidate personally. His house is in Ellis Bridge constituency, where Modi has denied former Cabinet colleague Haren Pandya a ticket. The BJP candidate is a Pandya friend, Bhavin Seth.

“I cannot say what will happen in the rest of the state,” says Rahul. “But I run this cybercafe where so many people come to e-mail and surf and stay in touch with people abroad. I think the image of Gujarat has taken a beating. I don’t know if the BJP will win. Two months ago, I would have said ‘most definitely’. But now I’m not so sure. Yes, we are all horrified by Godhra and Modiji really makes us cry, but there are so many things involved in these elections. Besides, I do not think that if you are a Hindu you will necessarily be a BJP supporter.”

Rahul is 26 years old and moderately prosperous. He says many of his friends had defended the Sangh parivar during the violence in Ahmedabad, but not all them will vote for the BJP. “It’s been a little bad for business.”

Soft saffron at work'

In the state BJP headquarters at Khanpur, Yaval Vyas, a chartered accountant and resident intellectual, says: “Narendra Modi is Amitabh Bachchan and Salim Javed rolled into one when he speaks of Godhra. He is moved himself and he can make people cry. His appeal is emotional.”

Asked if emotions translate into votes for the BJP, Vyas admits: “That is one thing that no one can measure. That is just what we are hoping will happen. It happened for the Congress in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was killed. We are hoping that Gujarat will be for us 1984 in reverse.”

He is aware of what Vaghela is trying to do.

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