Vol. XLIII No. 24 June 16, 2019
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GUJARAT POLL SCENARIO: BJP Back to Basics

Muralidharan

EVOKING strong regional, chauvinist and communal feelings and harping on Gujarati Modi for PM, the BJP swept all the 26 Lok Sabha seats from Gujarat in 2014. The main opposition, the Congress party, came a cropper. The BJP had polled 60.11 per cent of the polled votes as against 33.45 of the Congress. Three years later, in the contest for the assembly, things had changed. The BJP which had pompously set a target of 150 failed to reach the 100 mark, let alone retain the 115 seats it won in 2012. The BJP lost more than 11 per cent of the vote as compared to 2014 polling 49.05 per cent. The Congress on the other hand, won 77 seats, polling 41.44 per cent and gaining nearly 8 per cent. These elections shredded to pieces the unstoppable and invincibility halo of the Modi juggernaut. This got reinforced further with the outcome in the elections to the state assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and several by-polls that followed.

The wound inflicted in December 2017 continues to fester the Gujarat BJP. That it will seek to play all the dirty tricks in its book in an effort to ensure that it corners the bulk of the seats from the state this time, is not in doubt. It has made a host of pre-poll promises and a spree of inaugurations. To bolster its strength and prospects it is engineering defections from a rudderless, unguarded and unprepared Congress. In a short span, five Congress MLAs defected to the BJP and two of them were made ministers in the Rupani cabinet. The defections are mainly from the Saurashtra region where the BJP had performed poorly in the last assembly elections. Even MLAs like Alpesh Thakore and a few others were in talks with the BJP. But wary of a backlash from migrants who form a sizeable vote bank in a number of urban constituencies, the BJP did a rethink. Alpesh had not long back led a movement targetting migrants.

However, these inductions and consequent promotions to some of the turncoats has not gone down well within the rank and file of the BJP. Many ministerial aspirants feel let down and there are murmurs within the party. Fighting with its back to the wall, the party wanted both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to contest from Gujarat. Though Modi has opted to stick to Varanasi, party chief Amit Shah replaces L K Advani in Gandhinagar.

Agrarian distress, water scarcity in large parts of the rural areas especially Saurashtra, soaring unemployment, combined with closure or under-utilised capacity of many small and medium scale industrial units consequent to demonetisation and faulty implementation of GST — issues that dominated the popular discourse at that time — are back to haunt the ruling party. Adding to its woes is the discontent among various sections of the workers. Various organised sections of workers including those from the state road transport went on strike for the implementation of the 7th Pay commission, state government teachers for better wages and working conditions as also anganwadi and other scheme workers on their demands — whether these real bread and butter issues will prevail or the voters will succumb to the display of muscular nationalism and jingoism will be known as the campaign picks up.

Pulwama and Balakot have come in handy and injected a fresh and much needed dose of adrenaline, for a party on the defensive even in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. In its aftermath there is a concerted  and orchestrated bid to change the narrative and whip up passions. Schools, colleges, government offices apart from streets became venues for mobilisations and coerced display of patriotism. Much like the war rooms in some TV channels, Gujarati dailies indulged in shrill rhetoric upping the ante. A widely read newspaper, the Gujarat Samachar, which had been strident in its opposition to the BJP for some time now changed tune and had an entire page titled “From the War Front”, for days together, graphically detailing the command structure during a war and various other such details and updates.

Narendra Modi took this pitch further by loudly proclaiming at a campaign rally in Ahmedabad last week that “Ghar mein ghuskar maarenge (will enter their homes and kill them)”, alluding to Pakistan, even while threatening more air strikes on Pak-based terror camps. The shrill anti-Pakistan (read anti-Muslim also) tone is not new either to Modi or the BJP in Gujarat. Against the background of the burning of some coaches of the Sabarmati Express and the anti-Muslim pogrom that followed, in the 2002 state assembly election campaign, Modi had declared Miyan (Muslim) Musharaff as his prime enemy. The Gujarati Muslim was sought to be identified with Pakistan and demonised. Such is the extent of fear that has been instilled that the ghettoised and marginalised Muslim community was the first to come out and demonstrate against the killings in Pulwama.

In the campaign for the 2017 assembly elections, Modi had even suggested that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hatching a plot against his government in connivance with Pakistan. A loose but uncharitable remark made by Congress leader Manishankar Iyer was twisted and used to the hilt to portray himself as a victim. Among the flood of fake news during that campaign a banner in some street of Surat that proclaimed Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel as the chief minister in waiting was also used to allude to Pakistan’s intervention. An attempt was also made to link him with a suspected ISIS operative. The source of the banner is yet to be traced. So also with regard to the other posters targeting minorities that had come up in Ahmedabad and other places. Surely, much more is in store in the course of the campaign in the days leading to the poll.