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Ab ki baar: Why Congress and Rahul are no pushovers in Gujarat this time

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 26 September 2017, 19:19 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

As Gujarat readies for Assembly elections, there is a change in the state's political narrative. Perhaps for the first time since Narendra Modi started calling the shots in the Gujarat unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the saffron brigade is feeling the heat due to the Congress.

Ever since Modi took over as Gujarat chief minister in 2001, the Congress never got a chance to claw back. He never bothered much about the Congress national brass making forays into the state off and on during the Assembly or Lok Sabha polls. But this time around there is a visible concern and a palpable anxiety writ large on the faces of BJP leaders.

From the time Modi took over as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, the BJP's confidence was consistently on the rise owing to the landslide victories in the next three Assembly polls. This culminated in the BJP sweeping victory at the national level with Modi becoming the prime minister and going on to replicate the 'Gujarat Model' in almost every sphere.

In the process, the Congress' top leadership could never make a mark in Gujarat during their visits. Scant rallies by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi drew good crowds but it stopped at that.

Meanwhile, Modi and his cohorts, while being supported by an army of cyber soldiers, were successful in running down and lampooning the Congress leaders, quite often crossing the limits of decency. People in Gujarat still remember Modi for calling Sonia a 'Jersey cow' and mocking Singh as 'Maun Mohan Singh'.

But observers point out that things have changed this time and there has been a role reversal.

“Now the people are asking what Modi has done for Gujarat in the last three years that he has been the prime minister except continuing with his gala events. They are pointing to the misery brought by demonetisation and the Good and Services Tax (GST) in the state which is a trading hub. With the economy in doldrums, the small-scale entrepreneurs and manufacturers are also posing questions. The Bullet Train sop has not got the desired response,” pointed a senior media person based in Ahmedabad.

Observers say that by raising these issues Rahul is getting public attention. Whether this attention gets converted into votes is yet to be seen but this is making BJP workers nervous.

“Earlier people used to laugh when Modi used to fire barbs and jibes at Rahul, Sonia and Manmohan Singh. They used to enjoy and circulate 'Pappu' jokes referring to Rahul. But at present, it is the Modi jokes that are doing the rounds. The most unsettling has been the Vikas gando thayo chhe (Vikas aka development has gone mad) series that has been followed by Maara haala chhetri gaya (I have been duped) series. Many more such campaigns can be expected soon,” points out a young filmmaker.

It is also being pointed that by announcing a fortnight-long campaign of Rahul in the state, the Congress high command has ensured that the local Congress leaders remain on the ground. It is felt that the more these leaders are seen among the people, the better it is for the Congress.

A look back

One needs to look into the past to understand how Modi made BJP's invincible to breach in every Assembly poll.

The process started in 2002 Assembly polls. What worked totally in favour of the BJP was the complete polarisation of Gujarati society in the wake of the Godhra train burning incident that was followed by the anti-Muslim pogrom.

It was in the run-up to these elections that Modi and his poll planners had come up with what can now be easily called 'Jumlas' like – “There will be fireworks in Pakistan if the BJP lost the polls”. This was something that was to be repeated again to polarise voters in the Assembly polls in other states like Bihar. In 2002, Modi kept referring to Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf as 'Miyan Musharraf' to carry the communal campaign forward.

By the 2007 elections, things had changed. He had been successful in promoting himself as 'Vikas Purush' while continuing to sell dreams to the Gujarat populace. But the hangover of the 2002 riots had continued in the form of matters remaining alive in media reportage of court proceedings, sporadic instances of communal violence and the series of allegedly fake encounters by Gujarat police.

Playing to the crowds

In the run-up to these polls, it was Sonia Gandhi's comment of 'Maut ke Saudagar' (Merchant of death) that was lapped up by Modi and the BJP to polarise voters. This polarisation along with his donning the mantle of a 'Dream Merchant' saw the BJP through even as its leadership continued to throw barbs at Sonia's Italian origin and portraying her as a political elite.

It was at the height of this campaign that the controversy over Sohrabuddin's encounter took centre stage. Modi asked his supporters at a public rally, “Who was Sohrabuddin ?” And the reply was, “ A terrorist.” He then asked, “What should be done to such people.” And the ecstatic crowds screamed, “They should be shot.”

Modi continued to rule Gujarat for another five years. By 2012, it was time for him and the BJP to play the victim. Emboldened by the scams that had started hitting the UPA 2 regime, it was time to attack the Congress on corruption while portraying the BJP leadership and Gujarat as a whole as a victim. It was just around the polls that the present BJP president Amit Shah got the nod from the Supreme Court to enter Gujarat.

The Supreme Court while rejecting the CBI's plea to cancel the bail given to Shah in Sohrabuddin case, permitted him to enter Gujarat while transferring the fake encounter case to Mumbai.

Earlier the Gujarat High Court, while granting him bail, had debarred Shah from entering Gujarat and the latter had spent several months in Delhi.

Hence it was time for one of Modi's key poll managers to get back to work and this time the campaign was around the injustice to Gujarat by the Centre. This was executed with a series posters and videos that were unleashed on television, particularly the hyper-local cable television networks. These videos showed an anonymous hand portraying the UPA 2 government at the Centre slapping various Gujarati stakeholders under the tag line 'Gujarat ne had hadtu anyay (Repeated injustice to Gujarat)'. These stakeholders could be professionals like chartered accountants and corporate workers being told that while Gujarat contributed Rs 14,000 per head in the form of taxes it was getting only Rs 2,300 per person in return.

There was one on the Centre banning the export of cotton while encouraging meat exports on subsidy.

There was yet another accusing the Centre of discriminating against Gujarat on rail network This clip talked of rail network length getting reduced from 5,396 km in 1960 to 5,328 km in 2012. There were several more such clips on various subjects.

First published: 26 September 2017, 19:19 IST