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Gujarat assembly elections 2017: BJP may need more of PM Modi amid signs of class line-up

A contrast suggestive of diminishing appeal has been noticed at the PM’s recent meetings in the state. Yet many believe history might repeat itself once he gets into the arena full throttle, in his avatar as the Prime Minister from Gujarat.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 19, 2017 08:53 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times, Rajkot
Gujarat polls,Gujarat assembly elections,PM Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives for a BJP meeting at party headquarters in New Delhi on November 15. (Raj K Raj/HT File Photo)

There are voices galore against the BJP in Saurashtra. But are there votes aplenty for the Congress?

The jigsaw gets trickier as one engages with people young and old on the streets, at roadside kiosks and in local agriculture marts. The anger that’s palpable is only a dip test. It isn’t yet electorally quantifiable.

A perspective nevertheless can be attempted against the experience of past elections — in 2002, 2007 and 2012—the BJP won under Narendra Modi’s direct command. Even passing criticism of the government or the chief minister in those times begot dirty stares —and scorn.

Crowds would rise and recede in waves at Modi’s public rallies, including those in the 2014 elections. He held his audience in thrall. They captive, he the captivator.

A contrast suggestive of diminishing appeal has been noticed at the PM’s recent meetings in the state. Yet many believe history might repeat itself once he gets into the arena full throttle, in his avatar as the Prime Minister from Gujarat.

Will he or can he rekindle the love affair that appears to have gone sour? That’s the questions the sceptics ask, mindful as much of the Modi lure coupled with his party’s ground strength.

The BJP’s phenomenal reach in the state is cogently summed by its spokesman Bharat Pandya. “The Congress cannot match our eye contact with voters...”

But the saffron party’s door to door canvassing is a recognition as much of the challenge it faces. It’s either worried or unwilling to leave anything to chance in the region with 48 assembly constituencies. The 150-seat target in the 182-strong House is the highest the party ever set for itself.

Is the BJP’s boast realisable? On the 300-km Ahmedabad-Rajkot stretch through Surendra Nagar and Morbi districts, I countenanced an eclectic mix of disenchanted electorate: farmers, daily wagers, jobless youth, small businessmen and lowly government servants.

They were an encyclopaedia of complaints, each one of them having a story to tell: official apathy in ensuring minimum support prices for farm produce; systemic corruption; lessened incomes post demonetisation and GST; arm-twisting by legislators and growing unemployment.

There were clear signs of a rural-urban, poor-rich divide on class lines. The trend transcended the caste hiatus as Dalits and OBCs talked the language the Patidars did— albeit with less ferocity.

Articulated variously, their concerns were common. Called ‘khedut’ in vernacular Gujarati, farmers were at the mercy of private traders. Waiting lists at agro markets are long, the per farmer purchase restricted to 70 sacks of 35 kg each.

The paper work at the mandis is huge, the growers forced to bribe officials at several levels. Even on completion of tedious formalities, the gap between sale and receipt of money is 20-30 days.

“So much for Digital India and Aadhaar identification,” rued Mansukhbhai, a Leuva Patel, at an agriculture cooperative in Rajkot. “I won’t vote for the BJP but I suspect they’d make the grade again...”

The incongruity inherent to the argument is the leitmotif in popular scores of angst, of spontaneous outpourings that often conclude with predictions of a happy ending for the BJP. It has a lot to do with Modi’s image of invincibility, the power he wields and the disbelief that he can be felled on his home turf. That too as Prime Minister.

At Dhrangadhra in Surendranagar, a disabled carpenter showed me a cluster of houses built under the Garib Aawas Yojana. His has been an eternal wait for the spartan dwelling for which he paid a booking amount. The entrance blocked by wild growth, the premises lies in waste. Built as if for a crop of weeds!

The carpenter’s income has halved after notebandi. The same is true of a clutch of stone cutters who cursed the local legislator’s middlemen. But Rahul Gandhi hasn’t come seeking your votes, I asked. “So what? Did the BJP MLA come after getting elected,” countered Gopal Parmar. He put a caveat however to the spontaneous outburst: “we won’t vote to defeat Modiji, we’d vote to defeat his party leaders here...”

In simple terms, it can be explained as local anti-incumbency. At Halvad taluka, in the Morbi hub of ceramic industries and at Rajkot, anger is more against sitting MLAs and the state administration. Illustrating that as much were farmers in Charadva village accusing a BJP leader of blocking supply of Narmada water to his opponents, in the area with scarce ground water.

One also heard sporadic voices against the PM on demonetisation and GST. But that aspect of the popular mood was understated— even deferential.

The Centre’s decision to cut GST on ceramic products to 18% has had a salutary impact on the Rs 5,000 crore turnover sector dominated by Kadva Patels in Morbi town.

But the countryside remains dotted by Patidar villages declared out of bounds for the BJP.

Those upfront in their criticism of the PM are from among the rebellious Patels seeking quotas.

They vent vitriol over sex CDs in circulation against Hardik Patel.

“If not a 23-year-old, will a 63-year-old diabetic do sex,” is the refrain. Recalled in that vein is the Naliya sex scandal in which a BJP leader allegedly pushed many girls into prostitution.

(vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com)

First Published: Nov 19, 2017 08:15 IST