Ahmedabad, Dec. 13: The man on the make-shift stage shouts: “Dekho, dekho, dekho kaun aaya hai. Gujarat ka sher aaya hai (look, look, look who is here. The Lion of Gujarat has arrived).”
The assembled crowd in the congested alley of Dariyapur breaks into wild applause.
It is nearly 9 ’clock at night and it is Narendra Modi’s ninth meeting of the day but his roar is as loud as ever. “The attention of the whole country, nay the whole world, is fixed on Gujarat today for it is the first state in history to fight elections on the sole plank of development,” he says, before veering away from vikas to launch a vitriolic attack on the Congress party’s “vote bank” politics.
He mocks at Manmohan Singh, fumes at Ahmed “Mian” for labelling him “Sultan”, rants at “Madam Soniaben” and ridicules “Rahul baba.”
As the middle-class urban audience breaks into guffaws and applause in turns, Modi spots a man in the distance furiously waving a placard. The placard is passed from hand to hand in the crowd till Modi can clearly see it. It is simple enough — much like what one sees at a cricket stadium when Tendulkar is at the crease. It reads “Target 150” and sports the BJP’s lotus symbol in between.
Modi breaks into a beaming smile and says “Thank you”. That figure he knows would be truly historic — after all, the highest tally in Gujarat’s history was the 149 seats won by the Congress back in 1985 under Madhavsinh Solanki. For the BJP, even one seat more than the current figure of 117 would be a grand enough victory.
But Modi is an ambitious man, and given the rapturous response of this audience of exuberant middle-aged women and excited young men, you can’t really blame him for dreaming of scoring 150.
But dreams seen at night often dissipate in the clear light of day and that’s exactly what happens as we drive away from the city next morning into the rural hinterland that spans the districts of Ahmedabad, Surendranagar and Rajkot.
At our very first stop off NH 8A, some 50km from Ahmedabad, men gathered at the tea stop from the surrounding villages in Bavala taluka, make no bones about their desire for “change”. Bavala falls under the Sanand Assembly seat and Sanand is famous for doing what Singur didn’t — allow Tata Motors to set up the Nano factory.
Narsibhai Maheria and Chandrakant Maheria lead the chorus against Modi. “Gareeb logon ke liye kuch nahin kiya, sirf mote logon ke liya kaam kiya (he has done nothing for the poor, only for the rich),” they insist, before the usual litany of complaints that get bunched under the term “anti-incumbency”.
The Nano factory, they claim, employs only “outsiders”, and only a few big farmers made big money from compensation. “But the money won’t last forever, and now they have no land either.”
But it’s not just about Nano. It is a generalised discontent that voters all over India often express at election time — the only time the voiceless get a chance to vent their grievances against the powers that be. And we soon discover that Bavala is not some isolated pocket of Congress supporters. At every stop all the way to Wankaner in Rajkot district, we hear the same litany — the lot of the poor has not changed and no one cares for them.
And just as villagers in Bankura and Birbhum districts during the 2011 Bengal Assembly elections had complained to this reporter about the partisan distribution of BPL cards by the Left Front government, their Gujarati counterparts make the same charge against the BJP dispensation.
The only difference is that in Bengal, they accused the CPM of helping only its own cadres. Here, the more commonly heard charge is “Vikas hua hai, to sirf Tata aur Adani ka hua hai, udyogpation ka hua hai (only the Tatas and Adanis, only industrialists have prospered here).”
The well-to-do Gujarati in the towns and prosperous farmers in the villagers may have much to thank Modi for, but the poor and the underclass who are all too visible still — women walking with massive headloads of dried grass, men who make a living from mazdoori in farms or factories, villagers who identify themselves as Koli Patels or Ahirs or Bharwads or Harijans — seem completely unmoved by the much-vaunted Modi magic.
In fact, much like the India Shining slogan of 2004 that boomeranged on the BJP, Modi’s hype about vikas seems to have touched a raw nerve in these sections of Gujaratis.
Their lives may have improved over the last decade and more but clearly not fast or deep enough. They still think of themselves as gareeb, low down in both the caste and class hierarchy, and Modi’s claims of all-round prosperity only heighten their sense of discontent.
“Arre Modi bahut jhoot bolta hai,” Narsibhai in Bavala tells us, a sentiment echoed by Noor Mohamad in Wankaner town more than a hundred miles away.
Wankaner, a former princely state with a large Muslim population, has a sitting Congress MLA and that could be one reason for the vocal Muslim voices against Modi. But even elsewhere, Muslims seem less taciturn than they were five years ago.
In the 2007 elections, with Hindutva still in the air, Muslims preferred to be circumspect about Modi and the BJP, making it clear that they just wanted to get on with their lives and not dwell too much on the bloody riots of the past or the uneasy peace under a resurgent BJP.
But since this election is not overtly polarised along religious lines, old divisions of caste and older solidarities that bind the underclass are coming to the fore — and Muslims speak the same language of “gareeb ke liye kuch nahin kiya” as their Hindu brethren.
If Modi’s claims of bringing unprecedented development and prosperity to six crore Gujaratis are even half way correct, he has nothing much to fear. The prosperous and the neo-prosperous will then outnumber the poor and propel Modi to a handsome hat-trick.
But if Gujarat is not as exceptional as it is made out to be, and the voices we heard turn out to be a state-wide trend, then forget “Target 150” — even crossing 100 may not be that easy.