Gujarat 2017: Hindutva trumps caste and economy, but barely
by Punarvasu Parekh on 19 Dec 2017 9 Comments

Gujarat has spoken. The BJP has managed to emerge victorious, with some bruises and battering. The assembly elections were portrayed as a fierce battle with the BJP on the back foot. “Anti-incumbency after 22 years”, “Patidars have deserted BJP”, “traders are angered over GST”, scheduled castes “up in arms against atrocities”, “farmers are cross over MSP and procurement”, we were told. The economic performance of the state was sought to be belittled. “Vikas gando thai gayo” (development has gone berserk) was a favourite catch line. P Chidambaram told Gujaratis that the state GDP was moving in reverse gear.


But it didn’t work. The people said to be angry with BJP has entrusted it with a majority for the sixth time. It is not that the issues are unimportant. Large sections of Patidars, traders, scheduled castes and farmers are indeed seething with anger on issues that matter to them: reservations, demonetization, compliance hassles of GST, atrocities, low-level corruption and so on. The grievances are not fabricated or manufactured, but could well be magnified. In spite of high GDP growth, Gujarat does lag on certain social indicators.   


Two factors, however, prevented these issues being as lethal as BJP’s adversaries expected them to be. First, the credibility (or lack of it) of Congress. The comprehensive failure of Congress as a ruling dispensation at the Centre and in the state is still vivid in popular memory. Rahul Gandhi’s new-found aggressiveness did nothing to enhance the credibility gap for his party.


The second and far more potent factor was Hindutva. There was a widespread feeling that a setback for BJP in Gujarat would set the stage for a much larger setback for Hindu society as a whole at the national level. It would embolden anti-Hindu anti-national forces to regroup with renewed vigour for the next Lok Sabha elections. The fear of being relegated to the status of second-class citizens in the only country they can call their own helped to override intra-Hindu dissensions. A soft line on terrorism, a hearty welcome to Rohingya Muslims, a blind eye to Bangladeshi infiltration, a free hand for missionaries to exercise their “freedom of religion” etc. are the visions conjured up by prospects of a ‘secular’ government at the centre or in any state.


Whether Ahmed Patel would have become chief minister of Gujarat if Congress had won a clear majority in the assembly is a matter of conjecture. But there is not an iota of doubt that under a Congress government in the state, he would have been infinitely more powerful as a confidant of the high command. And, irrespective of the role that Ahmed Patel would have played with a Congress government in the state, the Hindus would have been much worse off.


Narendra Modi realized this and played upon these fears to the hilt. While he has done nothing to address specific Hindu grievances, he is not yet hampered by the credibility gap that acts as a great constraint for other leaders. Despite serious mistakes, Modi retains his credibility with people in general. A lot could be said against Modi’s economic policies and key economic decisions, but no one doubts his sincerity and commitment to national interest. He remains or is largely perceived to be the best choice available at the moment. 


Caste remains a potent weapon to counter Hindu nationalism by dividing Hindus, and Congress did play the caste card. Rahul Gandhi was apparently convinced by his campaign managers that the phalanx of Patidars-OBCs-SCs will give a hard time to BJP. The threesome is indeed a formidable combination. But the fly in the ointment is that there is little love lost among them and they have often functioned as rival pressure groups. The more the Congress looked tilting towards the Patidars, the more apprehensive grew other groups. The young leaders from these groups were widely perceived as Congress puppets which undermined their credibility in their respective groups. As a result, each group was fractured.     


The same thing happened in the case of Muslims. Rahul Gandhi calculated, not without reason, that Muslims would side with the Congress as they had no alternative. However, Modi government’s principled stand on triple talaq seems to have swung at least some Muslim women voters to the BJP. Rahul Gandhi’s opportunistic donning of the mantle of a devout Hindu found few takers in the community.  


The news that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Vice President Hamid Ansari had met Pakistani High Commissioner at a secret conclave at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s home created deep apprehensions about the intentions of the Congress leadership in peoples’ minds. Modi reminded the public that at the height of the Doklam stand-off with China, Rahul Gandhi had secretly met the Chinese ambassador in India.


For Rahul Gandhi and his incremental following, the election results must have come as a big disappointment. Smelling a sensational victory, Rahul Gandhi launched a heavy, incessant barrage of personal jibes, innuendoes and mockery against Narendra Modi, which he hoped would put him at par with Modi. Like Arvind Kejriwal before him, he has hopefully realized that pouring vitriol on a high-profile target does not automatically elevate one to his level. On his part, the Prime Minister cannot be faulted for giving as good as he received, though his plaintive response strengthened the perception that BJP was really on the back foot.  


In lowering the tone and tenor of the election campaign, Rahul Gandhi was ably assisted by loyal family retainer Mani Shankar Aiyar. His ‘neech’ remark revealed an elitist contempt for the common man harboured by top Congressmen beneath the surface of all talk about ‘aam aadmi’. What these courtiers do not realize in their zeal to please their masters is that every time they invoke Modi’s humble origins, he rises in the common man’s esteem.


The victory in Gujarat will certainly strengthen Modi’s position both at home and abroad especially among investors. BJP’s allies in the NDA will have to check their ambitions and assertiveness. The opposition will need new ideas for 2019. Modi will be free to pursue foreign and economic policies of his choice. One can only hope that there will be no more disruptive shockers like demonetization. It is a forlorn hope that he will do anything to address specific Hindu grievances in education or temple management. But he would do well to use his considerable political capital on carrying out politically sensitive economic reforms like labour laws, land acquisition.


The victory is not without a warning for Modi and BJP. The party has retained the state, sans the glory of a sweep that it hoped to make. Narendra Modi remains uniquely popular across all sections of society, Gujarat has been a BJP bastion for the last two decades, it is Modi’s home state and yet BJP had to sweat it out this time. Visitors to the state notice that there are clusters of jobless youth outside villages, that young people are lining up for admission to low-quality education institutions overseas, that far more people are willing to complain about their government. These are symptoms of a crisis in education, jobs, manufacturing and, therefore, in trading. Modi is too sharp to let these go unnoticed. Gujarat needs better local leadership and educational reform. Let us hope it gets one.


The views expressed by the author are personal

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