It wasn’t a battle of masks. It was a battle of props: Narendra Modi had an uncomfortable label on his forehead. The Congress party had blinkers on its eyes.
Described as "dictator", "merchant of death", and promoter of "Hindu terrorism", the Gujarat chief minister stunned his opponents to win the most sharp-edged Indian election in years, with a simple, straight-forward message from voters.
<b1>Gujarat rewarded Modi for good governance, and even if many disagree, its people do not want to be seen forever through the prism of the 2002 religious riots.
With that verdict, India’s voters left pundits and punters gaping in astonishment for the second time this year, months after the unexpected sweep in May by Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. The ripples reached national politics: it gave the BJP a boost as it prepares for national elections, and gave Modi a huge leap within the leadership rungs of the party.
"This historical verdict will bring a qualitative transformation in the prevailing political trend of the country," Modi said after the verdict. "The people have reaffirmed their faith in a stable, efficient and transparent government."
The Congress party struggled to explain the defeat, calling it a victory of the politics of religious polarisation. But the answers lay elsewhere. Even as it faced the slur of the government alleged inaction during the riots, Modi’s government transformed several key sectors of the state in five years, holding out examples in governance for the rest of India — and the voters rewarded him.
While his opponents pointed the other way, Gujarat’s voters were looking across the vast hinterland, where stunning changes have taken places over the past years in rural infrastructure, agriculture is booming, industrial growth is accelerated, and power is supplied 24 hours a day in village homes, though not yet in farms — an achievement even the national capital cannot boast of. Compared to the national average of three per cent in agricultural growth, Gujarat has clocked ten per cent.
The Congress reluctance to counter Modi’s charges of it being soft on terrorism, and of New Delhi discriminating against Gujarat, added to the woes of the demoralised opposition party, which banked only on the charisma of its President Sonia Gandhi and her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi to do some last-minute magic — which was not to be.
The BJP got further help from some ill-advised criticism, which critics said had little connection with ground realities. The Congress alleged, for example, that 80,000 small industrial units have shut down in the state. Small industry groups said that except in plastics and textiles, most small industries were booming and those that had shut down had reorganised due to global competition from China and other competitors. Globalisation, not Modi, was causing the churning and Gujarat’s industrialists were swiftly adapting, they said.
Even a sting operation a couple of months ago that showed some leaders belonging to VHP and BJP admitting their role in the post-Godhra riots on hidden camera, turned out to be dubious.
On whether the victory would lead to a power struggle in the BJP itself, Modi said: "The entire credit of the victory is neither mine nor of the BJP part, but it is the victory of the people of Gujarat. The people of Gujarat have shown the power of popular will."
At the end of the day, the sweetest revenge for Modi came from several predominantly Muslim areas where the BJP won. Gujarat’s 45 lakh Muslims form over 9 per cent of the state’s population.
In criticising Modi, his critics have long painted Gujarat’s Muslims as little more than second-class citizens, although the community has a literacy rate of 73 per cent — higher than the national average for all communities, and fares better than the national average for all religions on several counts including sex ratio and work participation.
In the key region of Saurashtra, the Congress exaggerated the scale of the so-called Patel community anger against BJP; and it misread the mind of the region’s farmers, who had bristled under the tough crackdown on power theft some years ago, but had since tasted the gains of uninterrupted power supply.
Both BJP and Congress were concentrating in rural areas, as the writing on the wall was clear in urban areas - it was BJP all the way.
The Congress had given up the fight even before it began in majority of the 12 seats in Ahmedabad city itself. The party was convinced that it would not be able to change the mind of urban voters, who were clearly and solidly behind Narendra Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat slogan. There were voices of dissent, but these were confined mainly to Muslim areas.
The BJP had swept Ahmedabad in 2002 elections, in the aftermath of the post-Godhra riots, winning 10 of the 12 seats. This time the party was showcasing its development plank, boasting that their city was now on the world map. Even so, it managed to hold on to eight of the seats.
The story was slightly different as one stepped out to Central Gujarat. Development was an issue here, but it was perhaps the only region in the state where BJP appeared to be on the defensive. Sure enough: the BJP lost a whopping 19 seats in Central Gujarat, down from 38 of the 42 it won in 2002.
In South Gujarat’s 28 seats, the Congress expected to do better than in 2002. The Congress party’s hopes were raised after Sonia Gandhi’s rally in the tribal district of Dangs attracted a huge crowd and Rahul Gandhi’s roadshow in Surat brought out thousands of people. But the BJP not only retained its hold over its 17 seats from last time, but gained two. The Congress won 10, losing two since 2002.
The Congress was heavily banking on BJP’s rebel candidate and top diamond merchant Dhirubhai Gajera to guide them to a victory in urban Surat.
Gajera, BJP’s sitting MLA, had won the seat thrice and was expected to retain it. He lost, in spite of allegations that the Surat-based diamond business was funding the anti-Modi campaign.
The Congress’ campaign in Surat city argued that the state government did little during the devastating floods of 2006. The campaign failed to influence voters.
The BJP had also swept through the southern tribal belt in the 2002 state elections - but had swung towards the Congress in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. They defied Congress hopes this time and voted the BJP.