The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled the Western Indian State of Gujarat continually since 1998, is facing the December 2017 State Assembly elections there with trepidation rather than confidence, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
Gujarat, which has been under the watch of the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for 13 years (from 2001 to 2014), is now in dire straits politically.
A party which had been glowing with self confidence till recently, is now on the defensive, fighting with its back to the wall. Loss of Gujarat to the Congress, written off as a spent force in the State, or even a poor performance in the elections, will adversely affect the BJP’s chances in the 2019 country-wide parliamentary elections.
This is because the BJP is in power at the Center in New Delhi also, and its performance there has a direct bearing on the elections in Gujarat. The ruling BJP in Gujarat cannot pass the buck to the Center for its failures and get away with it.
Nor can the BJP say that it hasn’t had time enough to implement promised schemes because it has been in power for close to two decades. It is answerable for all the ills of the State with no whipping boy to take the thrashing.
There have been signs of the BJP’s going down the hill for some time – signs which did not get enough public attention because of the messianic aura around Modi, the Prime Minister.
Political and economic conditions in Modi’s home turf have never been as bad as they are now. The so-called “Gujarat model of development” touted by Modi as a model for the entire country, is in shambles as it has only enriched the rich and impoverished the poor.
There has been a precipitous fall in Gujarat’s economic growth. It fell from 15% in 2005-2006 to 7.5% in 2012-2013. It is now the 9th State in India in terms of per capita economic growth. There is a yawning gap between the urban and the rural areas which affects the overall picture because 57% of the people live in the rural areas and 15.7 million of the 24.7 million work force is in agricultural sector.
And it is the agriculture sector which has suffered the greatest neglect under BJP rule. The much trumpeted Gujarat model notwithstanding, the rural areas of Gujarat present a worse picture as compared to the rural areas in other progressive States.
Gujarat farmers have been putting up with drought without any relief because of a lack of working irrigation schemes. To add to their woes, cotton prices have plummeted recently. Being a cash economy the agricultural sector took a heavy blow when the Modi government at the Center demonetized more than 80% of the currency in circulation in 2016.
Modi grandiloquently promised that demonetization will lead to the recovery of black money which will result in every poor person’s bank account being credited with INR 15 lakhs. But no black money was recovered and no money was credited.
Only 1.2% of households in the rural areas of Gujarat have modern facilities like TV, telephone, computer, scooter or car, while the national average for the same is 12.7%.
Gujarat is lagging behind in education too. Compared to other “advanced” States like Haryana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, Gujarat has the lowest percentage of graduates in the rural areas. It is 3% while in the other States mentioned it is 5%. The school drop-out rate in Gujarat is 62% while the national average is 53%.
The all-India situation under BJP/Modi rule is no better. Even as Modi is touting projects like the Japanese-built bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai as a sign of rapid progress, an overwhelming proportion of Indians live in grinding poverty.
58% percent of the population account for only 11% of the national income. 40% of the population is middle class but it accounts for only 23% of the national income.
As a result of the ill-conceived and badly implemented All India General Sales Tax (GST), lakhs of jobs were obliterated. As a BJP leader (and former Finance Minister) Yashwant Sinha put it, youth are facing joblessness because of the GST fiasco.
While existing industries are working below capacity, there has been a 66% fall in new schemes recently. But a few companies close to the Establishment are minting money. The gainers are a mere 1% of the Indian population. It is the creamy layer which owns the media houses rooting for Modi and portraying the opposition as a set of bumbling fools.
The credibility of Modi, who came to power in 2014 promising “Vikas” (progress) and “Achche Din” (Good Times) is wearing thin, even in his home State. Dominant communities like the Patidars (the Patels as they are known) have turned against BJP and Modi personally, because their demand for reservations in State jobs and educational institutions has not been met.
The Patidars, who are 16% of the population and are a factor in 73 out of the 168 seats in the Gujarat Assembly, had been supporters of the BJP. But they could opt for the Congress, come December.
The Dalits are ardent voters and have also been BJP supporters for some years. But in the course of the past year, they got alienated from the party after “Go Rakshaks” (Cow Protectors), having the backing of the BJP and the government, started lynching them for various reasons including carrying on their traditional occupation of skinning carcasses of cows.
The Muslims of Gujarat, 2000 of whom lost their lives in the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, voted for the BJP for self-protection. But with the revival of an anti-Muslim policy and lynching by cow vigilantes since Modi came to power in the Center in 2014, the Muslims could turn to the Congress for succor.
Muslims are 10% of the population and could influence the outcome in 28 of the 168 constituencies in the State.
The BJP’s fall in the peoples’ eyes is reflected in the local bodies elections. In the last local bodies elections, the Congress won 23 out of the 31 rural Zilla Parishads while the BJP swept the urban municipal councils.
So far, one of the strengths of the BJP has been manifest weakness of the Congress party in Gujarat. By the mid 1990s, the BJP had broken the main plank on which the Congress used to fight elections – an alliance it had forged between the Kahatriyas, Dalits and Muslims. The Congress had no local leader to match Modi. In the recent past, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had not inspired confidence in the anti-BJP group.
But the grossly under-estimated and derided Rahul Gandhi is now emerging as a national as well as a local leader. His recent tour of Gujarat had seen crowds thronging to see him and shake hands with him. Local bigwigs in village after village waited to see him and apprise him of the conditions in their areas.
Gujarat, being under the spell of Hindu nationalism or Hindutwa for two decades, has forced Rahul to visit temple after temple to establish his identity as a Hindu and play down the fact that his mother Sonia Gandhi is an Italian Catholic. He has to bear below the belt taunts like Subramanian Swamy’s demand that he make a public statement declaring his actual religion.
But undaunted, Rahul Gandhi is proceeding with his plan to revamp the Congress in Gujarat. He has constituted a 32-member State Election Committee. He has appointed several Vice Presidents to represent various castes and regions.
They are Tushar Chaudhary, an Adivasi leader and son of former Chief Minister Amarsingh Chaudhary, Patel leaders Paresh Dhanavi and Kuwarji Bawaliya, and Karsan Das Sonali, a Dalit. Satyajit Gaikwad, once a rising star in the Congress, has been brought back to be a Vice-President.
Many political observers acknowledge that the BJP is playing on a weak wicket but are going by the conventional wisdom that in the absence of an inspiring alternative, the BJP may come back to power though limping and bruised.
But elections are notoriously unpredictable and one should not be surprised if the BJP is defeated and Congress comes back to power. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal swept the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections a few months after the Modi wave had swept the parliamentary elections in the national capital.
(Modi’s supporters parade with Modi masks. Will the mask stay or will it be torn?.Photo:EPA-EFE)