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It’s an Indian election finally. Even amid this dead-serious business of choosing the next government, it’s hard to keep away the quaint filmi touch. So old patriotic favourites like Mere desh ki dharti, Apni azadi ko hum and Chhodo kal ki baatein blare out loud, minutes before veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani gets talking to the ‘buddhijeevi’ and ‘prabuddha nagarik’ (intellectuals and enlightened citizenry) of his constituency, Gandhinagar, at the Rajnath Club. In his patented formal Hindi, he holds forth on having been a witness or a participant in every general election since 1952. He talks of the ballot system in the 1952 elections, how it changed over the years and how it’s imperative to make voting compulsory. As his speech winds on, a palpable restlessness builds in the air, manifesting itself in loud murmurs, incessant impolite chatter, stifled giggles and claps. Soon, this breaks out into full-fledged Modi sloganeering from scarf-clad BJP workers, clearly in a mood to drown out Advani’s nostalgia with the urgency and frenzy of today’s politics.
It’s all too clear. If the BJP were a family, then here was the grandfather facing the impetuous new order—whose mood is quite akin to that of the frontbenchers who testily clap away the documentary before the feature. They don’t have the patience, inclination and bandwidth to grasp anything beyond ‘Modi sarkar’; in New Delhi, of course. In the posters at the venue, Modi dwarfs all, be it Advani or Rajnath Singh. Modi buzzwords are strewn on the walls. Even the weather in Gujarat must seem inclement to Advani. Last Sunday, his roadshow—from Umang tenement in Nirnay Nagar to Gurukul Drive-in—almost got wiped out by a terrible, unexpected storm. “Even Advani seems to have been blown away by the Modi tsunami,” a local journo quips.
A day earlier, we are chasing the motorcade of veteran film and theatre actor Paresh Rawal—a rank newcomer in politics—as he goes village-hopping in the Gandhinagar South segment of his huge Ahmedabad East constituency. In contrast to Advani, he plays the Modi card to the hilt. Rawal stays close to the iconography, describing Modi as the keeper of Gujarati pride and a “sainik” and admits he jumped into the fray only because of “Modi saab ka aadesh”. In fact, he was in Nairobi when his candidature was announced and had to come rushing back. “His work is niswaarth (selfless),” Rawal says, and he too is seeking votes not for himself but only so as to channelise them to Modi. “Modi at the Centre will solve problems. Baaki sab saajhawaad, bhrashtachar se desh ko loot rahe hain (the rest are all rapacious coalitions),” he exhorts the crowds.
In between these two BJP campaigns in Gujarat lies the story of stark contrasts, implicit differences. One is an actor, a first-timer; the other a pole of Indian politics for decades, a veteran of six elections, a man who almost became prime minister. What we see is the political newbie slipping into a new role tailored for him, while a consummate politician like Advani is unable to contain his marginalisation despite his acumen. What ties them in a commonality, besides the BJP, is the love of films. One is quite the insider there; the other is an avid watcher, an old film critic.
What ties Advani and Rawal, besides the BJP, is a love of films. One’s an actor, the other an avid watcher, ex-film critic.
We trail these old and new faces just before Modi gets back to home turf this week, in the final run-up to the April 30 election. However, at first glance, to an outsider both Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar seem untouched by all the national frenzy about polls. Posters are few. “Sirf bade bade singal (signal) pe lagaya hai,” says my cabbie. Modi stares back at you from all of them. Some have him exhorting people to vote: ‘Matdaata, Bharat bhagya vidhaata’, almost equating voting for Modi with voting for India. Others show him displaying a boxer’s punch. Just such a posture, at times, can say more than a million words. It’s evident that till now he has not spent any time tilling his home fields, sure of their fertility, preferring to focus instead on Kashi, crisscrossing other states and shows of solidarity with icons like Rajnikanth. But he is there in absentia, through 3D images. He even infiltrates Advani’s meeting in the form of a young mimic who does a quick Modi impersonation.
Advani has nothing more to underline or sell. Like him or loathe him, his political life is all laid out for us. He does touch upon the refusal to retire, saying one is old only when one stops learning and growing. He does talk of the elections as the most predictable in recent times but fights shy of chiming in with the party workers’ Modi chants. He even avoids mentioning him as the PM candidate. He would much rather go for ‘Ek Bharat, sreshtha Bharat’ than ‘Ab ki baar....’ Ironically, he seems to have become the default moderate face of the BJP, still holding on to the idea of a political party whereas in Gujarat, more than elsewhere, the rhetoric has clearly moved away from the collective to the individual. “Administration or polls, everything is reduced to him,” says a local journalist. The same crowd that was restless at Advani’s oratory had listened in rapt attention to the preceding speech from Anandiben Patel, one of those in the running for the position of Gujarat CM if Modi moves to Delhi. Her reference points are all understandably Gujarati: Modi would take the dreams of Sardar Patel and Morarji Desai forward, she says.
In comparison to Advani’s more conventional approach, Rawal’s campaign seems steroid-driven. He has a lot to do. He has to bear the weight of a huge constituency, which also houses the infamous Naroda assembly segment, one of the worst-hit areas in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. It’s a traditional BJP stronghold but this time the Congress candidate, local man Himmat Singh Patel, is seen as a strong opponent. Besides, Rawal’s nomination meant a denial of ticket to the sitting MP, Advani loyalist Harin Pathak, leading to much heartburn within the party. (A budding rebellion by Pathak was quelled at the last minute with a conciliatory call from party bosses in Delhi.) Rawal also faced censure from rivals for using a derogatory Gujarati proverb in his initial days of campaigning. No wonder he is taking things seriously, practically living on the road, at times looking dazed, in automated mode. The charge of being an outsider is dealt with vigorously—by telling all that he was born and educated in Gujarat and that his wife and kids are Gujaratis.
We join him on a sleepy, blazing afternoon at Motipura village in the Gandhinagar South assembly segment. It’s a scene straight out of Benegal’s Manthan with buffaloes and huge milkcans as the unifying image as we move from one village to the other with his motorcade. Saffron caps and scarves are strewn all over; the show is managed by walkie-talkie-wielding youngsters clad in Abercrombie & Fitch tees. Gujarati ‘asmita’ is invoked through the names of Tata, Ambani, Sarabhai and Bhabha and then brought right down, in one swoop, to the doorstep of Modi.
Cinema is what has aroused the curiosity of villagers. “I liked him in Hungama,” says Monica Ben. For fans like her, the film connection does obviously matter as a badge of endorsement. He plays along: “Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar are with Modi. People are Bollywood fans and Bollywood itself is a fan of Modi”. Rawal also assures fans that films aren’t a closed chapter yet. “Hera Pheri Part 3, Oh My God 2 are yet to come. Picture abhi baaki hai.” The biggest of them, of course, is a Modi biopic in which he will play the lead: his direct link to the myth.
In all this rough and tumble, one thing seems evident. The 2002 riots have been turned into a distant issue. And corruption, which so caught the nation’s imagination recently, is nowhere either, the reason why AAP has barely made any inroads. “What the rest of India sees as corruption, the entrepreneurial Gujarati sees as cost to business,” smiles an academician and old-time Ahmedabad resident. Development is what everyone talks of. It’s all about the bridges, roads and highways. The Sardar Sarovar project and bullet train to Mumbai are the things Rawal is excited about. The cabbie proudly shows me the latest shining symbol: the cleaning up and construction of an embankment and walkways on the two sides of the Sabarmati river.
A while later, haltingly, questions arise in his talk. “The lakefront development of Kankaria has made it unaffordable for commoners like me to take my family there for an outing. Foodstalls have been removed, people have been deprived of livelihood,” he tells you, hastily adding, “mera naam mat likhna” (don’t write my name). Who’ll he then vote for? He’s not sure. Like him, no one’s willing to be quoted. Least of all, my taxiwallah on the last day. A Muslim, he rants against Pravin Togadia and Giriraj Singh but is confused about picking between BJP and Congress. “If rioters become rulers, then perhaps they won’t have time for rioting. And if Congress can’t control onion prices, how will it control riots?” To him, assurance of smooth business is all.
The media echoes the PR machinery in predicting a clean sweep for Modi. But many outside the cadre are circumspect. In the past five years, despite Modi, the seats for BJP haven’t gone up, the last big wins being in 1991 and 1999 (indeed, the 2012 assembly poll saw a dip in voteshare). They are not writing off the Congress yet. Saurashtra is the Achilles’ heel; Shankersinh Vaghela and Tushar Chaudhury loom with their local heft; Sabarkantha, Bardoli, Surendranagar, Anand, Valsad, Kheda, Mehsana and Dahod seem like close contests. The plot before the interval has been full of smooth cheer for the BJP; they wouldn’t like the second half to contain the usual Bollywood unpredictability. A megastar-driven blockbuster? Or a sleeper hit? This May we shall know.