In Gujarat’s political theatre of the absurd, Narendra Modi multiplied and proliferated: as he stood on stage whipping up Gujarati pride, a sea of Modis cheered him on; as his rath took to the streets on the campaign trail, a seemingly endless line of Modis ran along. Barring the brief fortnight-long campaign period, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi grabbed a few headlines of her own, calling Modi and his men "maut ke saudagar" -- in her very own tribute to Bollywood -- it was Modi and his clones who occupied mindspace in Gujarat.
Now, as he prepares to be sworn in on December 27 as chief minister for a record third time -- just three short of a two thirds majority, and just 10 seats less than he won in 2002 -- it’s time to answer the question: How did Modi obliterate the horrifying images of the state-sponsored anti-minority violence, project himself by turn as Vikas Purush and Mard Manas, take ownership of the good governance plank while never, for a moment, abandoning the BJP’s core Hindutva agenda?
When I traveled in the last week of November through dissident-wracked Saurashtra, riot-torn central Gujarat, the tribal districts of the east and down to the south to the diamond city of Surat -- on the eve of the high-voltage war of words that erupted as Modi and Sonia Gandhi addressed, apparently, equally responsive gatherings -- Modi, clearly, had an edge (how much of an edge was at that stage difficult to gauge).
Curiously, this pro-Modi mood was at odds with the objective situation that spelt advantage Congress. After all, it couldn’t get better for the party -- in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, less than two years after its disastrous showing in the assembly elections of 2002, the party had won 90 assembly segments out of a possible 182. In the three years since, Modi had to deal with a revolt in his ranks led by the redoubtable Keshubhai Patel and the politically and economically powerful Patel or Patidar community; he had angered all the RSS outfits -- including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh -- that traditionally worked seamlessly with the BJP at election time; he had reduced his ministers to ciphers and worked entirely through the bureaucracy; and there was deep resentment among the tribals who felt that he had put them on the frontline against the Muslims in the violence of 2002, and then deserted them when many of them were arrested. And to top it all, the Congress had worked systematically to a plan.
But look at the results, regionwise: in the 58 seats of Saurashtra (and Kutch), where the Congress was relying on BJP rebels, active particularly in Bhavnagar, Amereli and Rajkot, to help it add about 20 to its 2002 tally of 18, it actually ended up losing three seats. The BJP, on its part, climbed from 39 to 43. What happened there?
In the week I had traveled in that region, the first thing that became apparent was that the BJP leaders who had raised the banner of revolt against Modi, organising well-attended rallies across the state, and climaxing with a massive show of strength in Rajkot in September, were already losing steam. The reasons were three fold: the dissidents had failed to maintain the tempo; only 10 MLAs had left the BJP, of whom seven were contesting; and, significantly, the most influential Patel leader, Keshubhai Patel had not left the BJP. The powerful Patels, particularly the Leuvas, the community to which most of the dissidents belong, and which were expected to tilt the balance for or against Modi were confused. In Ramgadalur village (in the Shihore assembly segment), situated between Bhavnagar and Amreli, Shambhbhai, a Leuva, told me, "The fight is between Modi and Keshubhai -- we have nothing to do with it." He paused and added, tellingly, "Keshubhai hasn’t left the BJP." Subsequently, of course, the rebels inserted large ads in the newspapers, with Keshubhai frontally attacking Modi, but by then it was too late: the Patels were clearly not convinced that throwing their lot with a man, widely seen as a spent force, would do them any good. This was especially so since the economic policies followed by Modi had benefited the well-to-do Leuva Patel community.
In Amreli, the epicentre of the dissidence, as it is home not just to anti-Modi VHP leader Pravin Togadia (another Leuva Patel whose brother joined the Congress), but also to four dissident MLAs, who contested on Congress tickets, the picture appeared no longer as rosy for the rebels. Thakarsibhai Maithila, district Congress president, told me candidly, "Till the rally in Rajkot, the tempo was high -- the dissidents thought they would be able to topple Modi and wanted Congress support to do so. But when they failed, they lost face with the people." He himself was unhappy that he had not got a party ticket as a dissident had to be accommodated.
Simultaneously, former BJP MP from Amreli, close Modi associate and district cooperative bank chairman Dilip Sanghani, and a Leuva to boot, described to me the damage control mission mounted in the district. In the months leading upto the polls, he said, 900-odd meetings were held exclusively among Leuva opinion-makers. They were given details of the large political representation given to Leuvas by the BJP not just in the district but across Gujarat, as well as the range of welfare activities for the community. The BJP also mounted a campaign against diamond merchant and chief financier of the dissidents and the Sardar Patel Utkarsh Samiti Vasant Gajera and his brother Dhiru Gajera (both originally from Amreli). Dhiru Gajera, in fact, who was another BJP rebel, contested from Surat north on a Congress ticket. (A majority of the diamond merchants and cutters in this city are from Saurashtra, particularly from Bhavnagar and Amreli, and the politics of their hometowns spilled in to Surat.)
Indeed in Surat, I had the opportunity of catching up up with Dhiru Gajera taking a walkabout through the narrow streets of the inner city area of Haripura, with a motley group of party workers. The response to " Vote for Panjo" (Vote for the Hand) was desultory and when the group broke for lunch, the workers promptly took off their Congress scarves and stuffed them into their pockets, almost as though they were hired for the occasion. That was not a propitious sign, clearly. In the end, Dhiru Gajera, lost his election.
Of the other three regions, the BJP made marginal gains in both north and south Gujarat this time -- it was only in central Gujarat, the scene of the riots in 2002, that Modi lost ground. From the 42 seats he won in 2002, he dipped to 18 and the Congress climbed from 7 to 24. Here, the Congress had two advantages: one, three of its top leaders are MPs from this region -- union textile minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, union minister of state Dinsha Patel (who, of course, was pitted against Modi in Maninagar and lost) and state Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki. Two, the tribals and Muslims in this belt probably also turned out in large numbers against the BJP.
What was apparent also during my travels was that almost no one was willing to bet on Modi being ousted from power, not even those who hated him. Tribal activists campaigning against him in Panchmahal district told me ruefully: " Pata nahin, usme koi jaadu hain. When he speaks, even if he is telling lies, he mesmerises people, especially the youth." A Muslim grocer in Nadiad whose shop narrowly escaped the carnage of 2002, said grudgingly, "People say he has done a lot for vikas.."
Was that fear? Or a realization that whatever their own views on Modi, they had figured out that Modi understood Gujarat perfectly? For Modi, while marginalising the Muslims, tribals and dalits, who are largely anti-Modi and whose leaders are to be found among the proliferating NGOs rather than in the opposition Congress, almost exclusively addressed himself to the aspirations of the majority Hindu population, most of whom are unmoved by the state-sponsored atrocities of 2002.
Modi also succeeded in bypassing the traditional structures and making direct contact with different interest groups -- the mercantile classes through the chambers of commerce; the women through his Matrishakti programmes and self-help groups and so on. He even had what is described derisively by his critics as the "garba lobby" -- during the garba season, the government funded vast garba functions, adding to Modi’s appeal -- adding the fun quotient to his macho persona, the "mard mukya mantri" as star struck women workers described him.
Of course, Modi was aware that star appeal without a well-oiled organisation -- which he did not have this time -- would not suffice, and that the message of development by itself would not be enough to bring the votes rolling in. He was also aware that the campaign against him -- that he was the chief minister of five crorepatis, rather than of five crore Gujaratis could strike a chord amongst the poor, those whose villages are not still lit up by the much touted Jyotigram scheme, or connected by motorable roads. So all his pre-election interviews focused on programmes for the marginalised and deprived, such as the Rs 15,000 crore package for the Vanbandhu Yojana. (A local official explained that all that Modi had done was to merge all existing schemes for tribals and club already allocated funds for them -- a sleight of hand, as it were!)
He also left no stone unturned, as his campaign line revealed. The newspaper advertisements did not just focus on development -- there were ads that subliminally brought back the fear of the Other, the Muslims, by talking of terrorism and Godhra (and this was before the “merchants of death” controversy). A senior RSS leader in Surat, Thakore Krishna Shah, who clearly disliked Modi, told me, " Hindutva is more important than Modi -- and to preserve that, the BJP needs to stay in power, especially in Gujarat which is the most perfect state for Hindutva." He also said that the airing of the Tehelka tapes, by reviving memories of the 2002 anti-Muslim massacres, would "help" Modi.
Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley explained the strategy: "We want to set the agenda, and get the Congress to respond, not the other way around." Clearly, that succeeded. The party’s media managers, headed by Jaitley, were extremely pleased that the terrorism ads provoked Bharatsinh Solanki into saying that his party had a "different definition of Hindutva" from that of the BJP. "By engaging with us on our turf," Jaitley said, "he is already conceding ground. Hindutva’s proponents agree with our definition -- the Congress should be playing the secular card, but they are scared to do so -- so they will end up losing both."
Indeed, the Congress, till the end, remained confused about its identity -- it can scarcely compete with the BJP on the Hindutva issue. Tying up with the likes of Gordhan Zarafia, who was union home minister during the 2002 riots (and who was one of the chief BJP dissidents), did nothing for the Congress’s secular image. To add to its woes, the party had virtually no authentic Gujarati face to lead its campaign, and its ambiguity about its choice of a chief minister spelt instability and factionalism to the voters. It failed to destroy the Modi mystique, and so it ended up as a victory for Vibrant Gujarat.