Workers put up a campaign hoarding of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad. AP photo
Gujarat’s Election 2012 thus far can be summarised in one sentence: soft communalism, soft Hindutva. The BJP deployed both, the Congress just the latter.
The public discourse in the state has been navigated by the larger-than-life Narendra Modi since 2002. It was hard to miss his recourse to understatement in the first phase of the campaign, which closed on Tuesday.
Modi kept his cool barring the occasional invocation of Ram, comparing New Delhi with a sultanate and slapping Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel with the Mian tag, which was once reserved for General Musharraf.
There was no upfront reference to the post-Godhra pogrom by either side. Their anxiety to keep the horrendous past out of the debate even made Manmohan Singh’s innocuous lament for Gujarat’s minorities seem a trifle excessive. It gave the CM an excuse to discomfit the Congress by bringing up the Assam riots.
It’s debatable whether Modi was restrained of his own volition or was hamstrung by the Congress’s refusal to flag his communal record. The rival strategy suited in some measure his bid to cash in on the entente he initiated — but gave up midway by not fielding any Muslim candidate — with a section of the 6-7 million Gujarati Muslims.
For its part, the Congress, which fielded seven Muslims, studiously kept its minority outreach low key. Its cadre was active in the 40-odd constituencies where Muslims counted for 11-59%. But there was limited show-casing of clerics and maulanas. Even cricketer-politician Azharuddin was sparingly used.
The large Muslim turnout in 2002 invited a Hindu backlash that helped the BJP. Their reduced voting percentage in 2007 curtailed a majority polarisation — slashing the BJP’s tally from 127 to 117.
Wizened by experience, the Congress would prefer Muslim voting in the closing hours of Thursday rather than queuing up early at the polling stations. “Early en bloc voting by minorities causes last minute polarisation,” said a Congress leader.
His party’s effort through the campaign was to keep on course the development debate for its inclusive value. The tactics made sense. Hindu social groups in the countryside, notably the Leuva Patels, were on the same page as the minorities over Modi’s development model, which they considered partisan.
Water paucity brooked no religious divide in Saurashtra, awaiting the Narmada waters for decades. The temple town of Somnath, from where LK Advani started his Ram Janmabhoomi Yatra in 1990, gets water once in eight days.
The rundown area with 26% Muslims has seen meagre development, be it roads, sanitation or water, and power supply. A clutch of Muslims acquiesced as Rambhai, who carts coconuts in the temple’s vicinity, cursed the BJP regime.
Gujarati aspiration seems to be triumphing faith. That isn’t good news for Modi in a poll free of an emotive rallying point.