Shift of strategy and stage
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The Congress campaign of 2012 in Gujarat determinedly steers away from mentioning Modi and Muslims — the PM's speeches in which he mentioned "divisive politics" and "the insecurity of minorities" was an exception to the rule, while Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have so far stuck largely to the script.
On the same day, at a sabha in Palitana town in the district, Keshubhai Patel leaves no one in doubt about whom he is targeting. Grey-maned, grey-whiskered, grey-eyebrowed, and a surprisingly energetic campaigner, the 84-year-old regales the crowd with religious stories, allegories and Sangh Parivar inside jokes that feature Modi, now as the scorpion that has wrapped itself around the Shiv ling (Gujarat), and then as the lying lion that promises protection to the lamb instead of gobbling it up, because it is election time in the jungle.
Keshubhai's message: it was his government that laid all the big projects to bring roads and electricity and to reduce water scarcity — so much the bane of the dry Saurashtra region — while Modi only makes false development claims. Keshubhai's appeal: the local candidate doesn't matter this time, nor caste, community or party. For the next five years, voters must only ensure parivartan, or change.
Keshubhai's Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) may aggressively target Modi while the Congress minces, but it is clear that its challenge is more a taunt from within. In both metaphor and mechanics, the GPP campaign borrows heavily from the Sangh Parivar. On one of the chairs on the dais is ensconced a portrait of the Hindu farmer god Balram. Among those looking after the arrangements at the venue, wearing the party's yellow scarf, is Yashodhar Bhatt, who describes himself as the unofficial "sangathan mantri" for the GPP.
Bhatt represents a new phenomenon in campaign 2012: if in 2007, RSS-VHP resentment of Modi — on account of his "arrogance" and "personality cult" and also because his government refused to make space for Parivar men and women as chairpersons of government boards, for instance — was sheathed, it has spilt more into the open now. Bhatt is president of the state unit of the Bharatiya Vichar Manch and national executive member of the Laghu Udyog Bharati, both RSS organisations. He is one of the many RSS workers and office-bearers informally helping in Keshubhai's campaign against Modi. In Ahmedabad, Jagruti Pandya, wife of murdered BJP leader Haren Pandya, who is a candidate of Keshubhai's party from Ellisbridge, confirms that those from the "parishad" (VHP) are helping out with her campaign, because "it is, after all, the same vichardhara".
At a roadside rally in Ahmedabad, in the "border" area of Jivaraj Park — it lies on the edge of the Muslim area of Juhapura — Modi repeatedly suggests that any criticism by visiting central Congress leaders is an insult not of his government, but of "Gujarat". He invokes the Rani of Jhansi's resistance to surrendering Jhansi to the British and suggests this election is about whether or not "Gujarat" would be surrendered and given over. "Nahin denge, nahin denge, hamara Gujarat nahin denge/ be-imanon ko, bhrashtachariyon ko, nahin denge," he exhorts the crowd to repeat after him.
Modi addresses his nearly 40-minute speech to "pradhan mantri ji" and "Sonia madam", throwing in "Ahmedmian" too. His target is the UPA. He is posturing for the national, even international, stage. He speaks of the "Gujarat model" and compares it to other states, and to Japan and China. He ignores local issues, and disdains any mention of Gujarat Congress leaders.
Across the state, Modi's cue is picked up by his men. In a rally in Amreli town, Purshottam Rupala, national vice-president of BJP, asks the crowd if the malnourishment figures being cited by the Congress are an "insult" to Gujarat. On the same stage, Narhari Amin, who has crossed over to the BJP after the Congress denied him a ticket, says the election is about "the son of Gujarat" conquering Delhi in 2014.
In the first phase, therefore, the motifs of the 2012 Campaign for Gujarat have been all on display.
The Congress is trying to address voters without talking about Modi because that might feed into his dominance of the campaign. It doesn't mention 2002 or Muslim — driven by the fear that it might help Modi work up another polarisation along communal lines. Instead, the party has been determinedly engaging with local issues. This has followed year-long efforts and programmes of grassroots engagement, claims Gohil: there were nukkad and chauraha meetings, the Sardar Sandesh Yatra, outreach in the tribal areas, the "kinara bachao yatra" in coastal areas. A 12-point programme outlines what the Congress would do in power. There is wide agreement that the Congress ticket distribution this time has been in tune with local and caste realities.
Yet, it may well turn out that by the time the Congress arrived at local issues and landscapes in Gujarat, Modi had nudged and shifted the terrain of the battle — from the issues to himself, from the state to the national stage.
With the Garib Kalyan Melas and the Vivekanand Yatra, he has personally reached out to large numbers of voters before the formal campaign could begin. After it was inaugurated, he has conspicuously defied its confines and claimed a larger fray — be it by physically enlarging his presence through 3D shows, or by vaulting over the heads of the Gujarat Congress and directly taunting the Central Congress leadership.
Of course, in 2012, there are visible chinks in Modi's armour. It is widely believed that Keshubhai's coming out in the open with a new party, as opposed to his low-key revolt in 2007, has held Modi's hand in ticket distribution. As a result, he has played safe, changing only a handful of the candidates, in the process leaving many who are jaded, controversial, and not seen to have delivered to face anti-incumbency in their cosntituencies.
Especially in a belt like Saurashtra, which is more scarred by deprivations and failures of governance, and is also Patel-dominated and therefore more hospitable to Keshubhai's exertions to create a third force, even 3D Modi may not be able to dwarf the basic discontents. About lack of water, for instance — in Amreli town, public supply can be as scarce as one hour in 15 days. Or the absence of industry and jobs, because of which the young leave Amreli for Surat, Bhavnagar, Rajkot and Ahmedabad. Here, the anger is palpable in street-corner conversations against the "handful of industrialists" that have benefited most in Modi's regime, and against the local BJP candidate, Dilip Sanghani, a big businessman who runs the local bank and the dairy.
In the end, the election of one of the most politically-ideologically polarising figures of his time could be defined by the man himself seeing through his opponent and declaiming to an audience larger than the one his contest permits, while the main opposition tries desperately to pin him down to the local details and discontents, also while avoiding his eye. Keshubhai's opposition, constantly harking back to his lifetime's service in the Sangh Parivar, offers even less of an alternative worldview.
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