November 27, 2022

As Gujarat Heads to Polls


POPULARLY known as Wali Gujarati, 17th century Urdu poet Wali Muhammad Wali, in his poem Dar Firaaq-e-Gujarat wrote:


“Parting from Gujarat leaves thorns in my chest

My heart-on-fire pounds impatiently in my breast

What cure can heal the wound of living apart?

The dagger of exile has cut deep into my heart….

The heart is still anxious to catch a glimpse of my Gujarat again”

Wali, though originally not from Gujarat, while leaving for Delhi, expressed his longing to return. Gujarat, during his time, despite its paradoxes, drew and tolerated diverse people and cultures. Not anymore. His own tomb situated outside the police stadium and just a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of the Ahmedabad police at Shahibagh was demolished, paved and tarred overnight in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom that shook the country and the entire world.

Twenty years since 2002, the water flowing down the Sabarmati has been muddied (or bloodied) further. Wali would not want to return to a Gujarat which did not express outrage where rapists and murderers are accorded a public welcome, or, where people enjoyed and egged on policemen in plainclothes who flogged Muslims. Even if he had, he would have been condemned to put up in ghettoized confines like Ahmedabad’s Juhapura where Muslims isolated and segregated are denied even basic civic amenities. His mazaar was never rebuilt, court orders notwithstanding.


I too had left Gujarat for Delhi in 1988 after a nine-year stay there. I too, like Wali, have fond memories and had longed to return there. Migrating from Kerala, the first thing that struck me was that women felt safe to move about unescorted by men, even late into the night. A young lad of 18, little did I know of the skewed sex ratio, which currently is 919 against the all- India average of 940. Despite being a highly industrialised state one-fifth of its population lives below the poverty line. Around 39 per cent of children are stunted and around the same numbers underweight. The shambles that the healthcare system is in was more than exposed during pandemic, when thousands died, many in ambulances, waiting in huge lines outside hospitals, gasping for breath.

While the upwardly mobile middle class, overwhelmingly from the higher castes, find reflection in their aspirations in the BJP-led government, the mass of the poor, the peasantry, workers, dalits, tribals, minorities and other marginalised sections feel disenchanted for a variety of reasons. However, unlike the 2017 vote which took place in the background of Gujarat being rattled by agitations led by three young and emerging leaders - Harshad Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mewani, this time there is no such pan-Gujarat agitation that is engaging the masses.

No major issue seems to be dominating the election scenario this time around. However, the death of a hundred and thirty-six people in the man made tragedy at Morbi, huge number of Covid deaths, spiraling food and petroleum prices, loss of jobs and livelihoods, distress in the countryside etc. all are issues that will weigh in people’s minds while they cast their votes.

In 2017, the BJP scraped through with a wafer-thin majority of just 7 seats above the halfway mark, winning 99 seats. It fell far short of the dream target of 150 seats set by the home minister, Amit Shah.  The Congress won 77, independents 3, Bharathiya Tribal Party 2, and the NCP 1. However, by the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, things had changed with the BJP making a clean sweep winning all the 26 seats from the state. The jingoism following Pulwama contributed in no small measure.


Three years from 2019, the BJP is worried.  It is pulling out all stops. Among other things, it has resorted to the now familiar tactic of making the elected representative the fall guy. For the first time ever, several corporate houses signed agreements with the Election Commission of India, undertaking to monitor “electoral participation” of workers of 1,017 industrial units in Gujarat. Workers are being coerced to vote and being told that they are under watch. Before the Model Code of Conduct came into force, the Labour department had been calling up industrial units in the vicinity of where the BJP’s star campaigner Narendra Modi is holding meetings. They are being forced to transport their workers to attend these meetings. Several state road transport depots had put up boards announcing that due to the PM’s meeting and diversion of state transport buses, no buses will be plying on designated routes on that day.

Are these a tacit acknowledgement of the loss of the aura and the sheen of its mascot, thanks to the simmering and visible discontent in the state.

If push comes to shove, the BJP can always rely on the communal card, not to speak of the victim card that its star campaigner is so adept at utilising to its advantage.  While it was a combination of both, communalism and victimhood (in the wake of the widespread criticism following the anti-Muslim pogrom) that helped the BJP in 2002, in 2007 a loose ‘maut ke saudagar’ comment by a Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was utilised. In 2012 it portrayed itself as a victim of the bias shown by the UPA government at the centre. This time, a comment by Congress leader Madhusudhan Mistry saying that “Hum Modiji ko apni aukaat dikhayenge” is being hammered in by Modi to portray that he is being attacked for his caste background.


In the 2017 elections, fighting with its back to the wall, the BJP sought to invoke Pakistan’s interference to fetch votes. The Pakistan narrative is at play again. The confiscation of drugs worth Rs 350 core by the anti-terrorist squad of the state police and the coast guard in October this year is being used by the BJP to propagate that "There is safety because there is BJP." Further, "the BJP government will not spare those conniving with Pakistani drug mafia to spread the poison of drugs across India. Gujarat is saving the entire country from this poison."

Earlier, in February twitter had taken down a caricature tweeted from the Gujarat BJP’s handle. The caricature showed men wearing skull caps with the noose tightened around their necks with the words “Satyamev Jayate” and “No mercy to those spreading terror.” The caricature was posted a day after a trial court in Ahmedabad pronounced the quantum of sentence to the convicts in the serial blast case of 2008. Even in the Kheda flogging case, Gujarat’s minister for home, Harsh Sanghavi was unabashed in his praise of the accused cops.

The BJP has for long tried to make a dent into the tribal votes. Gujarat has a 15 per cent tribal population. Its tribal belt is contiguous with Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. While the tribal population is spread over 14 districts of the state, Gujarat has 27 seats reserved for STs. The BJP’s new-found love for Birsa Munda, whose statue it was parading in these areas during its Gaurav Yatra is just one such instance.  In the last assembly elections, the BJP managed to win just 9 ST reserved seats while the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) won two. The rest went to the Congress, which has long dominated these votes. However, the Congress faced a setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with its vote share declining to 38 per cent while the BJP’s rose to 52 per cent.

The Congress that put up a splendid performance last time has been on the defensive ever since. It let go all opportunities that came its way in cornering the BJP during the last five years. The campaigns and agitations that it conducted, if any, were lacklustre. Apart from desertions of Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore, it lost many of its MLAs to the BJP. The Congress is currently focussing more on Gujarat's Saurashtra belt, from where it won 29 seats last time.

It would not be out of context to recall whatAchyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth say in their ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat’. They write that Gujarati Hindu society in the post-2002 phase, “is not ready to look within. A majority of them, particularly the middle class, think that ‘the outsider’ – English media and academia and the so-called ‘pseudo-secularists’ – are out to malign and tarnish the image of Gujarat. The Gujarati media, most university teachers and literati are also not ready to look at or critically examine the issues related to development models or ecological degradation or steady marginalisation of the bottom 20 per cent of Gujarati society. For the Savarna middle class……they would support Hindu nationalism as long as this ideology supported their aspirations.”


Notwithstanding promises of free electricity and education, new entrant Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP are also vying for a share in the communal vote. It is not limited to his demand for pictures of Hindu deities on currency notes. He even promised to pay Rs 40 per day for the maintenance of each cow if the AAP forms the government in Gujarat. Two months back, around 1,750 cowsheds across the state housing around 4.5 lakh cattle joined an agitation against the state government for failing to release funds for maintenance of the gaushalas.

It is in this situation where the dominant ideology of Hindutva has gained acceptance in varying degrees among all major political formations in the state that the CPI(M), which is concentrated in some pockets, is contesting nine seats. It would be raising the issue of galloping prices, growing unemployment, privatisation of education, attacks on the rights of the working class, rural distress, implementation of Forests Rights Act etc., apart from communalism and the pursuit of neo-liberal policies.

While many commentators may be projecting the invincibility of the BJP, a look at the figures of the BJP and Congress in the last four elections shows that the BJP, though in power, has seen a consistent decrease in its seat share. Of the total 182 seats, the BJP won 127 seats in 2002, 117 in 2007, 115 in 2012 and 99 (just seven seats above the halfway mark) in 2017. On the other hand, the Congress saw a steady rise in the number of seats - 51 in 2002, 59 in 2007, 61 in 2012 and the highest since 1995- 77 in 2017.

In 2012, the BJP polled 48 per cent while the Congress got 39 per cent, a gap of 9 per cent. In 2017, however, while the BJP marginally increased its vote share to 49.1 per cent, the Congress reduced the gap to 7.7 per cent polling 41.4 per cent. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections the BJP secured 62.21 while the Congress got only 32.11.

There definitely is voter fatigue and also the search for an alternative. Barring a brief period between 1996 and 1998 when some BJP rebels led by Shankersingh Vaghela and later Dilip Parikh were chief ministers the BJP has been in power uninterruptedly in the state since 1995. What will 2022 deliver? The wait is not too long.