Monday, December 10, 2012
Ongoing debates about the Gujarat election are much ado about nothing. This is an election Narenda Modi will win without any difficulty. Manifestos, competitive promises of freebies and the bravado of speakers add up to mere poll-season tamasha. The only significance of the election is how it will affect the national scenario if at all.
There are many factors that make a Modi victory inevitable. The most obvious is that it is really a one-man race. There is no opposition party worth talking about. The Congress is decimated for the same reason that it is decimated in most other states: Its culture is so dynasty-centric that no credible leadership can come up anywhere. As for Kesubhai Patel, he was done little to widen his support base beyond sections of the Patel community. In any case, age is against him.
Modi, by contrast, is the very personification of power. Among urban voters his popularity is genuine and strong because they have benefited the most from his modernisation drive, especially in terms of infrastructure. There are neglected areas but they hardly hit the headlines. In Saurashtra, for example, farmer suicides have gone beyond 30 and all that the Modi manifesto promises is for the state to pay a portion of their debts. This will not help much. Economists consider it retrograde in principle.
But then, Narendra Modi has not expended too much energy this time talking about economics and development. There was a reference to the "neo-middle class" in the manifesto, but nothing substantive. Maybe too many worms have come out of the woodwork, such as new allegations about gasfield allotment irregularities and shelf companies of cronies. Maybe he felt safer to return to the original wellsprings of his strength, his passionate support base, the Gujarati Middle Class.
In a historically important essay in 2008, political psychologist Ashish Nandy had said how the Gujarati Middle Class "has found in militant religious nationalism a new virtual identity", how "the middle class controls the media and education which have become hate factories in recent times," and how non-resident Gujaratis, "at a safe distance from India", had become "more nationalistic and irresponsible". Those comments must have been as true as they were strong because Gujarat's police started criminal proceedings against Nandy. He was saved by the Supreme Court which expressed anguish at the growing intolerance over the free expression of people's views.
The perception that Modi feels safest with majoritarian communalism has been strengthened by his return to a trade-mark attack style this time. He said Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel was the Congress's nominee for chief ministership and then started referring to him as Ahmed-miyan. In the run-up to the 2002 election, he had won applause from the middle class by calling Pakistan's then President Miyan-Musharaf. When the Election Commission declined to change the polling date as Modi demanded, he had started referring to Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh as James Michael Lyngdoh. Modi obviously relishes the religious dig. And not one Muslim in Gujarat has got a ticket this time.
The BJP, plagued by factionalism and with a president grievously wounded by corruption charges, is left with no star other than Narendra Modi. Hence the recent rush among BJP leaders, including those aspiring for prime ministership, to sing praises of Modi. Given the mess the BJP is in, there is little likelihood of it garnering the strength to form the next Government in Delhi. There will be a post-election scramble among parties to collect the necessary numbers through allies.
That will be the moment of truth for Narendra Modi. Parties that joined hands with A.B.Vajpayee's BJP will not do the same with Narendra Modi's BJP. Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik merely symbolise the many who feel uncomfortable with Modi. At the same time leaders like Mulayam Singh and Jayalalitha may have credentials as good if not better than Modi to head a collision. As of now, it looks like a safe bet that Narendra Modi will remain confined to his fortress base -- the Gujarati Middle Class.