With a newly aggressive Congress in Gujarat and the disaffection among rural communities in the State, the ruling BJP has a real contest on its hands in the 2012 Assembly elections.
The political elite of Gujarat have already set the wheels in motion for the State Assembly elections scheduled in December 2012. Both the national parties, the ruling BJP and the Congress, have started grassroots mobilisation, and their leaders have intensified verbal duels at various levels. Both have completed the first round of constituency-wise reorientation after the new delimitation of seats. Out of a total of 182 constituencies, at least 60 constituencies have either been redrawn or turned into reserved or de-reserved categories as a result of the delimitation. Such alterations in nearly one-third of constituencies have posed new challenges for both parties.
Significantly, some senior Ministers holding important portfolios like Finance, Revenue and Urban Development in the State government, as well as the BJP State president, have been affected by the new delimitation of constituencies. All of them have had to relocate themselves and come to terms with new demographic equations. In the light of this, Chief Minister Narendra Modi undertook and recently completed a constituency-wise assessment to analyse the caste-class composition of voters. This is an indication that he intends to micro-manage the party's planning for the third Assembly election under his leadership. He has already declared his intention to win 151 of the 182 seats and create a milestone in Gujarat's political history.
However, current predictions are that it would be a tall order for him and the BJP to surpass their own earlier record of winning 127 seats in 2002, and 117 seats in the 2007 Assembly elections, even in the likelihood of his winning a third term.
While the delimitation is one challenge, three other factors can frustrate Mr. Modi's plans of achieving the record numbers he is dreaming about. The first is the rejuvenation of the Congress party in Gujarat. In the last one year, the Congress has become proactive in the State and through various ‘yatras' and campaigns it has established new links with the people. The party's new aggressiveness is visible at many levels — in the Assembly; in university campuses; in the local media. No doubt it is still far from putting in the shade Mr. Modi's manoeuvrings and theatricals but the present leadership has been certainly trying to join battle with the Chief Minister on every count. Just a few weeks ago, the Congress won the by-election in Mansa, a constituency contiguous with the capital Gandhinagar, by more than 8,000 votes. As Mansa was earlier represented by a senior BJP leader and the Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly, it was a rude shock for the ruling party.
The Congress leadership has also joined hands, though on a limited scale, with grassroots struggles carried out by farmers and tribals to protect their rights over local natural resources. At another level, recently, it represented the case of cotton farmers of Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat to the Central Government and succeeded in getting the ban on cotton export lifted. Although the Congress leadership hardly takes up issues related to landless labour or marginal farmers, its support base among big and middle farmers has become stronger in recent times. Realising the growing discontent among the upper sections of farmers, the State BJP president undertook a “Kisan Yatra” but was unable to get a positive response even in his own area in Saurashtra or from his own community of Patidars, the dominant caste in Gujarat society.
The second factor is widespread disaffection among poor rural communities such as pastoralists, fishworkers and labourers who depend heavily on common property resources. In the name of “development” and to project himself as “Vikas Purush,” Chief Minister Modi has handed vast tracts of coastal land and pasture land to big industrial houses. Similarly, water bodies in a number of districts in Saurashtra and Kutch, including the creeks that punctuate the coast, have been taken over by big industries, either legally or surreptitiously. It is common knowledge that pastoralists and fisherfolk have enjoyed traditional rights over such natural resources for their livelihood. They now feel deprived and distressed. Though no organised struggle has taken root, except the farmers' struggle against the Nirma cement plant in coastal Saurashtra, many villages of Kutch and Saurashtra have knocked the doors of the Gujarat High Court for justice. Their cases are pending before the court.
Perceiving the growing resentment among pastoralists, the Modi government recently announced a plan to develop pasture lands in the first phase of the coming monsoon. But leaders of the Rabaris and Bharwards — cowherds and shepherds — have called it a purely cosmetic plan. Even the Gujarati media have termed it a gimmick by the Modi government.
Mr. Modi's personality, specifically the authoritarian and autocratic streak in him, is the third factor that can foil not only his plan to capture 151 seats in the 2012 election but may even reduce the BJP's strength in the Gujarat Assembly. His style has seen some sangh parivar outfits, mainly the VHP and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, distancing themselves from the present leadership. Two former BJP Chief Ministers, Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta, have expressed their displeasure and disagreement with him on public platforms, either openly or metaphorically. Local BJP leaders such as Kanubhai Kalsaria have raised the banner of revolt against Mr. Modi's development agenda in the last two years, and led the successful farmers' movement against the Nirma cement plant. In spite of his open revolt, the BJP leadership has not been able to expel him from the party or initiate disciplinary action against him. Even as the RSS headquarters supports Mr. Modi and may project him for national leadership, local RSS leaders and workers have been resentful and may not throw themselves into Mr. Modi's re-election campaign.
While all the three factors could play a negative role in the coming elections, Mr. Modi's development agenda makes him a hero in the eyes of the powerful and ever-expanding middle class of Gujarat, which is also magnetically attracted to his style that puts off others including his own partymen. Earlier, the middle class was made up of the upper and middle castes but with rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, the ever-growing middle class means a combination of the upper, middle, OBC and Dalit communities in Gujarat.
The middle class factor
To make his appeal more attractive to this broadening middle class, Mr. Modi who started with the Hindutva plank added ‘Golden Gujarat' aimed at pandering to Gujarati parochialism, and market-oriented “development” to his plans and propaganda. Such a mix of three messages has granted him phenomenal popularity among the middle class in the State; with its unconditional support, he equates himself with Gujarat and any criticism against his actions is perceived as criticism of Gujarat and Gujaratis. It is noteworthy that while the Hindu middle class does not constitute the majority of Gujarat's population, its social composition coupled with the State's human geography give its members a decisive say in the urban and rural areas of Gujarat.
There is no one in the Congress leadership who holds comparable attraction for the middle class, or enjoys its confidence in the same way. Also, compared to the BJP's deep penetration in local power structures — the panchayats, city municipal corporations, the extensive cooperative networks or educational institutions — the Congress has limited influence. Neither is the Congress articulate enough to change the terms of the debate set by Mr. Modi. The party has not been able to question the development model or propose alternatives or bring up issues of justice for the victims of the 2002 carnage. Nor does it have influence with the Gujarati diaspora which is campaigning relentlessly but unsuccessfully to get Mr. Modi a U.S. visa and validating his non-inclusive development model in the western world. Yet, with its recent burst of energy in the State, the Congress may improve its performance in the next Assembly elections. Still it does seem unlikely that it will be able to dislodge the BJP from power.
It is certain that after the 2012 Assembly elections, Mr. Modi will start focussing on his next challenge, the 2014 national elections. Whether the national middle class would extend wholehearted support to him and establish him as a national leader is an open question.
(The writer is a leading Ahmedabad-based sociologist.)