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Ahead of polls, Gujarati diaspora in Mumbai split over BJP’s credentials

The community has been a steadfast BJP supporter but today stands divided. Like the Gujarati diaspora, the vernacular Gujarati media also stands split.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 03, 2017 08:02 IST
Swapnil Rawal
Swapnil Rawal
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
Gujarat elections,Gujarat polls,BJP in Gujarat
Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party raise their hands during Gujarat pride convention in Gandhinagar on October 16.(AP Photo)

For 68-year-old Deepak Mehta, a Gujarati businessman based in Mumbai, last year was a particularly difficult period. Two major decisions by the Modi government, a government he voted for in 2014, threw things off gear.

“Just as we were recovering from the impact of the note ban, the government brought in the Goods and Services Tax (GST). There’s so much unnecessary paperwork — returns to be filed every month. This is not what we expected from our government. I am disenchanted,” he said.

Mehta runs a medium-scale manufacturing business in Mumbai and Gujarat. He is among the 42 lakh Gujaratis at home in the megapolis but who have strong links with their home state.

Around 550km away in Ahmedabad, his son, Kaushal, who manages their two Bakelite handles manufacturing units in Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad, shared his father’s distress. But he continues to be optimistic about the government. This split of opinion within the family is reflected in the Gujarati diaspora here, closely watching the polls.

The community, which has been a steadfast BJP supporter and has voted for the party in power at the Centre, the state as well as the Mumbai civic polls held earlier this year, today stands divided over its support for the party.

Like the Gujarati diaspora, the vernacular Gujarati media also stands split on the issue. While Gujarat Samachar, a Gujarati newspaper headquartered in Ahmedabad, is perceived to be anti-BJP, the other two Gujarati dailies in the city — The Mumbai Samachar and Divya Bhaskar — are said to be taking more of a balanced view on the developments.

Over the last few weeks, Gujarat Samachar has dissected the state of the economy in Modi’s home turf and slammed the ruling government. In an editorial earlier this week, it pointed to the neglect of the rural economy, especially after demonetisation announced last November.

The editorial said, “There is a new problem and since the poll bugle has been sounded no one would be able to hear it. In the rural areas of Gujarat, there is a severe shortage of cash. This has been going on for the last one year and now the problem has only magnified.”

However, there is unanimity even among journalists across newspapers that the narrative has shifted.

A senior journalist with a leading Gujarati daily told HT, “The overall sense from the ground is that the BJP is rattled and PM Modi himself is slated to address a record number of rallies in Gujarat. The BJP is likely to win fewer seats than it did in the 2012 elections due to various factors ranging from anti-incumbency, impact of GST, demonetisation, and Patel agitation.”

Jatin Desai, a former journalist and a community expert, agrees. “Earlier, the Gujaratis, especially the trader community, were not ready to listen to anything against [PM ] Modi and the BJP. That has changed now. People are taking against the policies of the government,” he says.

Despite the gap created between the expectations of 2014 and the reality of 2017, the community is unlikely to completely abandon the BJP yet, mainly because they still don’t think that the Congress offers a suitable alternative.

In Mumbai’s garment and cloth markets, the usually cramped and chaotic Mulji Jetha has been uncharacteristically desolate despite the approaching wedding season. Traders and businessmen here told HT that their business is down by almost 70% though they did not wish to be quoted. Since last November, they say that markets have been sluggish and they have been forced to give hefty discounts at the cost of their profit margins.

Girish Shah, a diamond trader and managing trustee of Samast Mahajan (an association of the Jain community), said that the new tax regime operates with the presupposition that traders and small businessmen are thieves.

“Whether you look at traders or the Jain community, it is synonymous with business. With GST, there are three returns to be filed in a month. Should the government facilitate the businessmen or create such headaches?” he asked. Around 20 lakh people from the Jain community live in Mumbai.

Echoing his views, Viren Shah, owner of clothing retail chain Roopam, said, “We are not happy with the way GST was brought in and the way demonetisation flopped. Traditionally, the BJP is supposed to be a trader’s party, but the traders are the most affected. But even though people may curse the government, there is no alternative in sight today.”

First Published: Nov 03, 2017 08:01 IST