As the first phase of the Gujarat assembly elections commences today, it would be wise to remind ourselves that it is the people of Gujarat, and not the rest of the nation, who will be making a choice through their votes. The reason for such a reminder is that irrespective of what the protagonist of Gujarat Polls 2007 Chief Minister Narendra Modi means to us, it is the Gujarati electorate’s verdict on his performance over the last five years that will matter today and on December 16. The war of words between Mr Modi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi deconstructed by the Election Commission and the media provide only the atmosphere to a highly-charged contest. As is the case with elections anywhere in the country, the issues at stake in Gujarat go beyond development and governance. Playing the ‘security’ card has always provided Mr Modi back-door entry into the shimmering room of communal politics.
In 2002, it was ‘Mian Musharraf’ and (Muslim) terrorism; this time it is ‘Soniaben’ and (Muslim) terrorism. Close as such tactics are to the methods used by a bona fide Dirty Tricks Department, Mr Modi’s calibrated outbursts are not necessarily pooh-poohed as bad form, particularly if they are perceived as responses to a better-late-than-never belligerence from the Congress. The 87 out of the 182 seats going to the hustings today cover Saurashtra, Kutch and regions in southern Gujarat where caste considerations, along with the tribal vote, will play into the equation. This may determine how ‘straight’ Hindu-Muslim electorates may be atomised further to the advantage of the opposing Congress.
But if Gujarat 2007 campaigning started with Mr Modi’s ability as a man who has delivered development (and will continue to do so), it seems that it will be this issue that will return to the top of the mind of voters today and on Sunday. It is up to the electorate — not one single entity by a long shot — that will decide whether to believe Congressman Rahul Gandhi’s description of the Modi government’s tom-tomming of development as “a pack of lies”. Politically, with internal opposition within the BJP seemingly doused, courtesy a Congress that reminded the BJP supporter that there was an external adversary, matters before the voting machine will boil down to answering two questions: will development make every Gujarati’s life, including that of the Muslim, better? And are we safe enough from terrorism to enjoy the benefits of development? As you may have noticed, both questions are laced with issues that deal with ‘the communities’.