Just before 4.00 pm on Thursday, December 13, 2007, a warm-up speaker at Ahmedabad's Sardar Patel Stadium announced Sonia Gandhi was about to reach. It was a modest crowd that had gathered - no more than 15,000 as policemen at the venue told me. Never mind if a Congress leader later wrote the audience was "at least 50,000" strong and the city's leading English-language newspaper reported the stadium was "jam packed". Yet, this was the moment everyone had been waiting for: the arrival of the Congress president.
The warm-up speaker tried to rouse the crowd: "Congress party zindabad." "Zindabad, zindabad," answered the throng. "Sonia Gandhi zindabad," he went. "Zindabad, zindabad," it came back. Now he delivered the coup de grace: "Narendra Modi murdabad." There was no response, only silence--a long, very articulate silence. The warm-up speaker repeated the lines, but this time, wisely, dropped the denunciation of Modi.
Depending on how you interpret it, this anecdote could mean nothing at all or sum up the Gujarat election of 2007, as of 2012. As is apparent to any visitor, Modi's identification with Gujarat is now total. There is--or was--no hostility to him among mainstream voters, not even Congress partisans.
This is not to suggest Modi will win every single seat and the Congress can pack its bags and leave Gujarat for good. It is only to point out that the personality factor brings Modi a uniform incremental vote across the state. What the uncommitted voter has been telling him is: give me a local candidate and caste/community coalition I can live with, and I have no problem voting you back to office.
Inevitably, the anti-incumbency mood, insofar as it exists, is limited to the constituency MLA. Modi has been astute in previous elections in refusing re-nomination to MLAs who may be difficult to sell to the voter once again, especially on grounds of non-performance. It is likely he will do the same this year. On its part, the Congress is hoping that Keshubhai Patel (a BJP has-been who has set up a new party) and Sanjay Joshi (an RSS saboteur who keeps making mysterious trips to Gujarat) will pounce on these outgoing MLAs and encourage them to stand as dissident candidates and spoilers.
For the Congress, this will nevertheless be a defensive and desperate strategy and the result of its inability to find a suitable face to take on Modi. People vote for ideas and organisations and governance; but they also vote for personalities. The two are not mutually exclusive. Modi's repeated success in Gujarat--or for instance Naveen Patnaik's in Orissa--exemplifies this.
It is telling that while Modi has emerged as a pan-Gujarat phenomenon and has become a regional mascot, he has not reduced the Gujarat BJP to a regional party. Neither has he posited his Gujarati appeal as somehow truculently sub-nationalist, exclusivist and hostile to outsiders and people from other states. He is a Gujarat state leader, but not a Gujarat nativist one. This makes it easier for adherents outside Gujarat to accept him.
Of course, how many such adherents there are and how many votes they can swing nationally are matters for another day. (The writer is a political analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)