Man behind the mask
The electoral triumph of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat has, of course, silenced all critics and left the chief opposition party searching for fresh options in the run-up to the general elections due in the summer of 2009. But it did a lot more than just these two things.
Unlike in 2002, there were no riots to sharply polarize voters on sectarian lines. Again, the Congresss poll campaign was led by Sonia Gandhi and backed up by her son, Rahul, but it failed to revive the fortunes of the Congress. In the end, the results were remarkably similar to the last three times the BJP won in the state.
Yet, the picture conceals more than it reveals. The Congresss tally was lower than 91, the number of assembly segments in which it led during the general elections of 2004. It did recover from adversity in the seats reserved for the scheduled tribes, dropping only 10 of the 26 reserved seats. The recovery in the central Gujarat belt famous for the Amul movement put the party ahead in its traditional bastion. Here, and here alone, the kshatriya-Other Backward Classes card so reliable in the past played out well for the Congress.
But the larger map was different shades of saffron. Many observers including this writer had seen hopes of change due to a rural-versus-urban divide. Yet, the result humbled all, observer and pollster alike.
The one region that was the hotbed of rebellion, Saurashtra, saw all but one BJP rebel bite the dust. Elsewhere as well, the ruling party made up for losses, such as among the adivasis and in the central region. The most significant was the region of north Gujarat where the BJP won handily. The Mehsana district, for instance, saw a clean sweep.
The temptation to ascribe the victory to a last minute polarization is tempting enough. There is indeed some truth in the assertion. The persona of Narendra Modi, ubiquitous mask and all, dwarfed all other contenders. At times, he seemed like the sole candidate for his party in all the 182 seats. The Congress fell prey to Modis expert play of the card of regional pride. In manner more befitting of the late M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu or N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, Modi cashed in on a fierce regional pride, repeatedly giving voters a sense of being put in the dock. He began with the litany of complaints about himself being the target. But he conveyed to the voters the feeling that it was they, their state, their culture and their language which were at stake. The solution he provided was simple enough: just vote for the lotus symbol.
This they did. The Congress was on the defensive on the riots. It fielded only six Muslims. It could easily have joined forces with the group of BJP rebels, which included figures like Dhirubhai Gajera in Surat, a veteran of the BJPs front organizations. The Congresss state unit never bothered to issue joint statements on matters ideological. The party sought to paint itself a paler shade of saffron and lost the game somewhere along the way.
The direct attacks on the chief minister and his functionaries were a godsend. The term, maut ke saudagar, and the issue of the encounter death of Sohrabbudin were used for all they were worth. The Congress had begun on a defensive note, but then it went on the attack. Next, it seemed to hesitate and spoke in more than one voice. In doing so, it ceded ground to the veteran campaigner, Narendra Modi.
The development card did not work except in Modis favour. It is here that the economic upturn in both agriculture and manufacturing needs to be given credit for the BJP victory, though a large part of this was because of cyclical changes beyond his control. In 2002, the cotton textile industry was in crisis. Three years of drought had crippled farm output. Recession hit manufacturing in Gujarat hard. The complete reverse obtained in 2007. Good monsoons helped agriculture.
More important, the manufacturing boom created jobs in smaller towns and cities. Steel pipes from Anjar in Kutch and Ajanta locks, a company owned by a Patidar family, are symbols of that revival. The Jyotigram scheme helped supply 24-hour power to households. There are also signs that it helped diamond polishing factories and flour mills to move to smaller centres, thus dispersing jobs. The closure of units was real, but more jobs were being created as production got decentralized.
These developments may not be akin to the big poster investments as in the refineries and in petrochemicals, but they made all the difference. Nothing else can explain why the town-country continuum outweighed the rural-urban divide.
In the plains at least, check dams and metal-topped roads that connected the villages met long-term needs. These were the result of concerted policy decisions of the state government. Again, in line with the chief-minister-driven tradition in southern India, these were directly overseen and driven by Narendra Modi.
On voting day, and as became evident as the votes were being added up, these factors weighed well against the negatives. Too much weight was also given to conventional caste-based voting logic by players and observers of the political game. The loyalties of the Patels and the OBCs, kshatriyas and adivasis did and do matter. There is no question of them melting away But they have ceased to be the prime movers. The pull of regional sentiment meshed with the feel-good factor of an economy on the move is far more important today.
There is little doubt that in the process, aspirations of the minorities occupied second spot. But here it can and should be argued that the Congress hardly took these up in any seriousness. The speeches of the party president were not backed by action on the ground. Nor did it try to rebuild a broad popular coalition to transcend the now dead KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) of the Eighties.
In fact, the results throw up an urgent question about the Congresss tradition that does not allow a genuine rooted regional leadership to come up, one that can take on Modi in the contest for the regional personality of Gujarat. Unless the party begins to ask how this can be done, it will not make much headway even in the future.
Things never had looked as good for the Congress. Yet the dream of power proved elusive. A new factor in the equation was the Bahujan Samaj Party which contested all but 20 seats. It won none but ate away at votes in at least 50 seats and undercut the Congress in as many as 10.
What made Vibrant Gujarat work where India Shining did not? One part of the answer lies in the central role of Gujarati asmita combined with a pretty blunt espousal of Hindutva. There is little doubt that in the post-Vajpayee era, the latter is back, if in a different form.
But the larger picture is that in an era of economic reform, Gujarat does not fit any textbook model. Agriculture led the way in growth, and manufacture created jobs. Modi never spoke of IT. In Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu always did. In Gujarat, rural roads, not highways, featured in the slogan.
In a larger sense then, the stock response of resurgent Hindutva versus revived pluralism is not the only issue. That will ignore the economic dimension of the Gujarat electoral story.
It is only by looking at both dimensions that those who disagree with Modis vision of India will have to script a different story in the days ahead. Or else, he has crafted a victory that will reverberate well beyond Gandhingar.