On December 23, Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to its fourth consecutive victory in Gujarat. Modi was, of course, the main victor since the poll was more akin to a referendum than an election of 182 members of Parliament. However, the Congress was not the only body that confronted defeat. Modi’s spectacular victory was as much a setback for three other entities that were not formally a part of the electoral contest: the secular intelligentsia, the media and, paradoxically, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership.
The state Congress was by far the most honourable loser. It began the election campaign as the obvious underdog, lacking any single leader who could match Modi’s towering image. It was aware that the performance of the state government over the past five years, particularly in terms of providing water, electricity and security, ruled out any significant levels of anti-incumbency. Hopes of fuelling a significant level of local anti-incumbency also disappeared when Modi bulldozed his way through the BJP parliamentary board and changed 48 of the sitting 127 members of legislative assembly. Moreover, the party was aware that a verdict on the 2002 post-Godhra riots had been secured by Modi in the previous election and that it would not be prudent to resurrect the issue a second time.
What is striking is that despite these major handicaps the Congress fought a spirited battle and actually managed to persuade a great many people that it was in a position to upset the BJP applecart. The illusion of possible victory was not merely on account of the 2004 Lok Sabha election when the Congress prevailed in a narrow majority of assembly segments. The party was hopeful that the accretion of Leva Patels and Kolis to the pre-existing support from Kshatriyas, Harijans, adivasis and Muslims would tilt the social balance against the BJP. In addition, there were specific grievances of farmers over water and the state government’s uncompromising insistence on user charges. Finally, the Congress convinced itself that internal dissensions in the BJP over Modi’s style of functioning would also count in the constituencies.
The Congress had few aces in its hand but it did possess a few useful cards which, strategically played, could yield potential results. The most important of these was the skill, acquired in 2004, to convert big-issue elections into a series of local contests. In Gujarat, the Congress sought to subsume the personality of Modi in a messy cocktail of local issues where the scales are tilted against the incumbent. The BJP wanted to elevate an assembly election into a presidential contest; the Congress tried to lower it to the level of a panchayat poll.
The derailment of the Congress’s strategy wasn’t merely on account of Sonia Gandhi’s infamous “merchants of death” speech at Navsari on December 1. It is true that Sonia’s outburst gave Modi a rhetorical handle and an opportunity to question the Congress’s commitment to national security. However, even if Sonia hadn’t tagged this rhetorical flourish to her carefully drafted written speech, the BJP would have found some other comment to drive home its zero-tolerance approach to national security. It helped Modi that Sonia Gandhi provided the ammunition. Mocking Soniaben had greater punch than flaying Digvijay Singh for his reference to Hindu terrorism or knocking out Rajiv Shukla for comparing him to Osama bin Laden.
Yet, secularism was not an issue this election precisely because no one, and certainly not the Congress, wanted to make it an issue. Regardless of what all India Congress committee functionaries now say about a “principled” fight, the party proceeded on the assumption that the secular-communal issue had to be kept well below the radar. Muslim leaders of the Congress were told to stay away from the campaign for fear that they might say something injudicious, and most of the stalwarts of the non-governmental organizations and human rights industry either missed their flights to Ahmedabad or stayed remarkably low key. The Left, which has been so voluble on Gujarat, was an invisible factor and all the Page Three Stalinists confined their activities to one constituency in Bhavnagar where a Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate had been accommodated by the Congress. In Vadodara, the issue of artistic freedom wasn’t even invoked.
It is interesting that the only religious intervention of the Gujarat election was the anti-Modi tirades of Hindu monks who had the backing of the Congress. Modi, it was suggested by a breakaway Swaminarayan sect and the ever-obliging pretender “Shankaracharya” from Puri, had betrayed Hindutva. On December 16, a mysterious “Hindu” body put out an advertisement showing Modi felicitating a Muslim and allegedly offering arati with his shoes on.
The logic of this secular duplicity was clear. It was hoped that a mix of “Hindu anger” and anti-incumbency would check Modi. The victory could then be flaunted as a victory of secular principles over Hindu communalism.
Central to the proxy campaign against Modi was the media. In Gujarat, the media were neither disinterested observers nor merely biased against Modi; they were an active participant. From disseminating ridiculous stories about lack of crowds in Modi’s meetings and overplaying the Patel revolt in Saurashtra to Yogendra Yadav’s self-confessed doctoring of the exit polls, the media took it upon themselves to ensure Modi’s defeat. The suggestion that the English-language media were the worst offender is not true; for purely collateral reasons the Gujarati print media led the charge.
Media activism ensured that a large section of India switched on to their TV sets last Sunday morning fully expecting the downfall of the man who has been painted as a cross between Hitler and Attila the Hun. The results helped catapult Modi to the national stage as the man who could dare — and win. If it hadn’t been for the media becoming a prisoner of their own fabrications, the impact of Gujarat would have been strictly regional.
If the media overplayed Modi’s vulnerability, it was also due to the importance they attached to the chief minister’s alienation from the top brass of the RSS. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that an influential section of RSS leadership wanted Modi to be taught a lesson for his alleged arrogance, a euphemism for not allowing pracharaks to influence the administration. They instructed the parivar to stay neutral — an advice that was widely disregarded by the foot soldiers, encouraged the rebels to team up with the Congress and instigated top BJP functionaries in Delhi to be less than cooperative. Taking their cue from the RSS, a section of the BJP central leadership expended its energies in contributing to the contrived anti-Modi mood in Gujarat. Some of this opposition was diluted in the final days of the campaign when it was clear that Modi not only had the upper hand but had also captured the Hindu imagination with his stand on Sohrabuddin. The body language and the initial pronouncements of both the BJP president and RSS chief after the scale of Modi’s victory was known told their own story.
In an ideal world, the fallout of the Modi victory should not extend beyond Gujarat. But this election was extraordinary, not in terms of the issues at play, but because of the opposition the incumbent confronted. If the Modi phenomenon has acquired national importance, it is solely on account of his four-in-one win. The Modi-baiters have made Modi a national phenomenon. After the Mahatma, another Gujarati looks like setting the national agenda.