By Rajdeep Sardesai
It may be entirely coincidental, but it is perhaps only appropriate that the Gujarat elections are being held in the week of the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition.
The BJP, after all, hasn’t lost a single election in Gujarat over this period and the rath yatra which led to the Babri destruction rolled out from the state. In the immediate aftermath of the demolition, the BJP lost elections across several north Indian states but Gujarat has remained a saffron bastion, the original Hindutva laboratory whose political narrative has been shaped by the very forces that spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Remember, it was Narendra Modi who planned the first leg of the rath yatra from Somnath through Gujarat in 1990: it was his original moment in the political sun. L K Advani, the ideological mascot and leader of the temple movement, also chose Gandhinagar as his Lok Sabha constituency, reaffirming the strong connect between the BJP and Gujarat. Many of the kar-sewaks – the footsoldiers who participated in the Ram shila pujan — were from Gujarat. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad in particular, enjoyed a dominant position in Gujarat: its Gujarat-based leader Praveen Togadia was once the most powerful man in the state. It was the VHP cadres who led the horrific 2002 Gujarat rioting to ‘avenge’ the Godhra train burning.
In no other state has the BJP so unapologetically practiced the politics of ‘hard’ Hindutva, demonizing the Muslim as the ‘other’ and pushing for a consolidated Hindu vote. 2017 is no different. The BJP may talk loftily of ‘vikas’ and the Gujarat model of growth, but on the ground, there has always been a conscious attempt to stoke religious identity.
Why else would chief minister Vijay Rupani warn his voters of a return to ‘Latif Raj’ if the Congress comes to power? (Latif was a gangster who was patronized by the political class in the 1980s and 90s). Why else would BJP president Amit Shah raise the issue of Rohingya Muslims in an election rally in Bhavnagar? And why would prime minister Modi refer to ‘Aurangezeb Raj’ by selectively quoting Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar? And why would local BJP leaders refer to the young opposition troika of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mewani as ‘HAJ’ or indeed, remind voters that Congress leader Ahmed Patel is a ‘Miyan’?
The potency of the BJP’s Hindutva appeal has meant that the Congress has abandoned any pretence of standing by ‘secular’ values in Gujarat. No Congress leader dares mention the 2002 riots for fear of stirring another Hindu-Muslim polarisation. Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping spree has been designed to send the message that the Congress is not an ‘anti-Hindu’ party as the BJP has successfully managed to portray so far. It is almost as if the state’s ten per cent Muslims – pushed into their ghettoes and living within invisible ‘borders’ are now inconsequential to its politics: the last Gujarat assembly had just two Muslim MLAs.
Interestingly, while the Archbishop in Gujarat attracted controversy by appealing to reject ‘nationalist’ forces, there was complete silence when a Swaminarayan sect head chose to share a platform with the BJP leadership and ask his followers to vote for the party. In other states, the Hindu religious right is dismissed as ‘fringe’ but in Gujarat, religious leaders with large followings have often been central to the political discourse.
And yet, there are winds of change blowing across Gujarat’s dusty tracks that have made this an unusual election, the kind which the state hasn’t seen in a very long time. The rising clamour for Patidar reservations backed by an assertiveness of a younger Patel leadership is one sign that the notion of a unified ‘Hindutva’ identity is slowly beginning to crack. The demand for diluting the Goods and Services Tax is a reflection of trader anger at what is perceived as high-handed government intervention in the business cycle in a state where ‘dhandho’ (business) is the ultimate driving force. When cotton farmers in Saurashtra demand a hike in the minimum support price, when students in Ahmedabad protest against high fees in private institutions, when businessmen in Surat insist nothing happens in Gandhinagar without a bribe, there is a genuine sense that Gujarat is no longer easily swayed by high-pitched Hindu-Muslim rhetoric. After 22 years of near-uninterrupted BJP rule, a measure of anti-incumbency has finally set in marked by growing voter disenchantment.
Which is why the BJP has been forced to play its ultimate ‘brahmastra’ in Gujarat this time: the appeal of Mr Modi as the son-of-the- soil who embodies a sense of Gujarati pride. The prime minister’s charisma maybe fraying at the edges, but he remains a magnet for the pragmatic Gujarati who realizes the benefits of having a Central government that will not be hostile to Gandhinagar. The urban Gujarati in particular seems to be willing to give the BJP one more chance, one reason why the party with its strong organizational machine should still win the winter election. But even if it wins the election, the BJP must realise that it is slowly losing control over the narrative: the large crowds which leaders like Hardik Patel are attracting is proof that the younger Gujarati voter will no longer be taken for granted. For these voters, the concern over losing out on jobs and economic well-being matters more than their sense of ‘Hindu-ness’ which the political class has tried to exploit. It is this gen-next voter – many of whom have never seen any government in the state other than the BJP – who are now beginning to raise the inconvenient questions to the government. Twenty five years after the Babri demolition, the politics of religious hatred may be subject to diminishing returns in the original home of Hindutva politics.
Post-script: In Surat’s textile market, a group of traders tell me how the government has betrayed them on ‘note-bandi’ and ‘GST’. So who will you vote for, I ask. ‘Vote to BJP ko hee denge, where is the option?’