Everything has a timeline and everything comes to an end, so were the current Gujarat elections of 2017 after the fire and flurry of over one month’s political campaign. Perhaps no other election of late has been fought with so fiercely and viciously and with such a high level of acrimony among the rival parties. The poll narratives from ‘vikas pagal ho gaya’ to Gabbar Singh Tax and ‘neech kisam ka aadmi’ to Aurangjeb suggest the high pitch and stakes that the two national parties with opposite ideologies adopted in these elections. Many analysts and political pandits also hold it a sort of the semi-final before the ensuing national parliamentary elections due in early 2019.
The Gujarat Assembly election, even the finale when the ballots were opening, had its own twists and turns, ups and downs, hopes and disappointments, and cheers and celebrations with many nail biting moments. The BJP had been ruling Gujarat for the last 22 years and has achieved yet another victory to rule it for the sixth successive term. The credit for this achievement largely and undoubtedly goes to Prime Minister Modi. At the same time, it was the closest ever fight in Gujarat between the rival parties in several decades and the fight becomes more so significant because the reins of the Congress campaign was in the hands of the newly christened Rahul Gandhi as the president-designate.
While the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) lost several seats with its tally of ninety-nine in comparison to the previous Assembly elections, it increased its overall votes share by more than 1% to about fourty-nine in gross term, the Indian National Congress (INC or Congress) improved both in its tally of eighty seats as well as percentage share of over fourty-one percent. Many political analysts traditionally cite Gujarat as the original laboratory and chief bastion of the Hindutva agenda of the BJP but over the years under the stewardship of Prime Minister Modi, the Party has shown a gradual shift towards the economic and social development as the chief election plank. Ironically, the legendary Congress instead of joining the election fray with the traditional secular versus communal plank preferred to play on the caste dynamics of Gujarat, ‘soft Hindutva’ and ongoing economic reforms this time under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
In fact, this was an all-out and free for all kind of electoral battle this time that the Congress started with the slogan ‘Vikas Pagal Ho Gaya’ (Development has gone berserk) and resorted to using all possible weapons in the armoury like the Demonetization as the ‘organised loot and legalised plunder’, Goods & Services Tax (GST) as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’, reservation for the Patidars (Patel) community, Gujarat as a failed ‘Development Model’, Wooing of farmers, forging alliance with casteist leaders etc. while creating new paradigms in personalised attacks. In response, the BJP too played on emotional planks like son-of-the-soil, Gujarat asmita (Pride), Aurangjeb and taunted on the rival’s Hindutva approach. Needless to say, these are dangerous omens for the Indian politics and too bad for the democratic and secular credentials of the nation. The main issues and concerns are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Election Planks and Narratives
Vikas Pagal Ho Gaya:
Apparently, this started with a Facebook post by a youth on a road event which was quickly picked up and linked to the development of Gujarat by the Congress and Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leaders. In one of the meetings, Rahul Gandhi, then the Party President-designate, attacked Prime Minister Modi about the development in Gujarat personifying Vikas (development) as gone insane at a public meeting in Gujarat’s Kheda destrict:
"Gujarat mein vikas ko kya hua?
Ye kaise pagal hua?
Ye jhooth sun sun ke pagal ho gaya hai...”
(What happened to the development in Gujarat?
How did it go berserk?
It became berserk after listening to constant lies.)
Thereafter, it became a style statement repeatedly used by the Gandhi scion, many other Congress leaders and critics of Prime Minister Modi during the Gujarat campaign. He made allegations that Mr Modi constantly speak lies about the development and has favoured only a few big businessmen at the cost of small businessmen who have badly suffered and ruined during the BJP regime. One of the Union Ministers, Prakash Javadekar of BJP reacted to the Gandhi scion in the same vein saying it was not 'Vikas' but the grand old party that had gone berserk:
“Vikas paagal nahin huya hai.
Congress paglaa gayi hai.
Vikas toh apni jagah par hi hai”
(It’s not development,
it’s the Congress that has gone berserk.
Vikas has a strong base.)
There is no doubt that the Gandhi scion started it and took the narrative of the development to a new low. Gujarat had been a traditional Congress hold since independence with occasional setbacks till 1995 when BJP came in power. In today’s era of the highly demanding politics and anti-incumbency, no party can retain power so long unless 1) it is really delivering to the expectations of the people and/or 2) there is no suitable alternative available. Even on the various development parameters and living indices, Gujarat is undoubtedly among the bracket of top few Indian states.
While working in a key position in the Central Government in the power sector only a few years back, I recall Gujarat was among the few leading states which were comfortable with almost 24 hours power supply and a state that was willing to accept Centre driven more reforms despite the Congress being in power at Centre. Many politicians have a tendency of twisting facts to their advantage either willfully or under their advisors' influence, and Gandhi scion must try to avoid adopting wrong and potentially harmful narratives now that the mantle of providing an alternative government rests with him. This will be good for him and his party in restoring the lost credibility among the electorate which rely on reason and logic for the good governance instead of blind following on myths and slogans.
While the debate over the authenticity of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) is not new as the opposition parties have been conveniently raising the issue for more than a year now whenever they fear defeat or actual loss in any election. Earlier, the issue was vehemently raised by the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) during the UP Assembly elections, Aam Admi Party (AAP) and others in Delhi and other places with the Congress joining chorus them; in response the Election Commission invited all parties to come on the appointed date and time to inspect EVMs and prove if they can be tempered or hacked as alleged. Although none of the parties could stand to Election Commission’s challenge, the unscrupulous leaders continue to conveniently blame the Commission and BJP for tempering of the EVMs.
Initially Congress leaders appeared confident that their party would be win and Gandhi scion holding that there is an undercurrent in favour of the Congress. However, after the first phase elections, a state Congress leader Arjun Modhwadhia alleged on 9th December that EVMs could be hacked through the Bluetooth device raising concerns about the reliability of the EVMs. The second phase polling was held on 14th December followed by several exit polls, all of them predicted a moderate to massive victory of the BJP. As the fear of losing elections appeared a real possibility, the narrative of the Congress and other opposition leaders quickly changed to possible wriggling of elections by the BJP through the tempering and hacking of the EVMs. Apart from the national Congress leaders, even more vocal was Patidar Andolan Hardik Patel who held that BJP could win election only through manipulating EVM machines and threated agitation if so happens.
The Gujarat Congress even moved Supreme Court before the counting of votes but the court refused to entertain a plea of counting at least 20% of audit trails in each constituency. The apex court ruled that it cannot interfere unless the Election Commission’s earlier decision to restrict the EVM-VVPAT paper trail sample check to one booth per constituency is proved ‘arbitrary’, ‘illegal’ or ‘malafide’. While the Congess was raising doubts over the authenticity of the EVMs, the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stated that the EVMs had helped making elections ‘transparent and impartial’ and those criticising it were actually doing so out of the fear of defeat.
While the political controversy over the EVMs was being aired by the interested politicians, the Election Commission (EC) independently carried out sample check on counting of VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) paper slips in the polling stations in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections for the first time for greater transparency. VVPAT slips were mandatorily counted at one randomly selected polling station in each assembly constituency of the two states. The polling stations were selected through a random a draw of lots where either candidates or their polling agents were also present. After completing the exercise, the office of the Chief Electoral Officer in Gujarat simultaneously declared, “There was no mismatch in the random vote count on EVMs and paper trail slips carried out by the Commission across 182 polling stations in Gujarat on Monday.”
When the small time leaders like Hardik Patel with a dubious past make allegations that the EVMs were manipulated and tampered, it doesn’t raise much concern. But when the national or state leaders of a legendary party like Congress air similar irresponsible concerns, it certainly raise an alarm and uncertainty about the future of the deteriorating level of the Indian polity that threatens even the credibility and very existence of the Constitutional bodies in the democracy. When the Election Commission gave an open opportunity and challenge to the political parties to prove their allegation, they shied away and none of them showed up but at convenience still continue to raise doubts and controversies. The EVMs are offline machines without the internet facility or devices like Blue tooth. Where thousands of EVMs are in use, occasionally some odd machine might malfunction but it is not even a remote possibility in the current environment that they can be tampered or hacked by any political party to their advantage. there is a marked difference in malfunctioning and tampering/hacking.
Credibility of the Election Commission:
Not only in the context of the EVMs but the Congress questioned even the conduct and impartiality of the Election Commission during the Gujarat elections. This started after the Election Commission of India (ECI), based on certain complaints, issued a notice to Rahul Gandhi on 13th December for allegedly violating the model Code of Conduct by giving election-related interviews to TV channels a day before the second phase polling on 14th December 2017 inviting a sharp reaction and criticism from the Congress leadership. The notice was, however, withdrawn later stating that the provision under which it was issued is under review. This followed the Congress’s another salvo questioning the Commission if the notice was mere a ploy to prevent their telecast or a justification for not taking action or FIR against the prime minister and other BJP leaders for the road show / press interviews.
This is not the first time that the credibility of the ECI is questioned. This has happened in the past, it is happening time and again, and also it is not the Congress alone. Whenever a formal complaint is registered, the Commission is under obligation to initiate action although the past experience suggests that the most of such cases are closed or dropped taking a lenient view. It doesn’t show that the Commission is at fault, instead it simply indicate the kind of intense political pressures under which it operates to discharge its constitutional functions.
The national parties like the Congress and BJP must show political maturity and faith in the institutions like the Election Commission and refrain from pressurising it with the allegation of bias or favourism to suit own convenience, in the interest of democracy and federalism. The Commission too comprises of the human beings only; it may occasionally make a judgement error but allegations of bias and favourism appear to be too far-fetched. Only a few months ago, in a bitterly fought election for a few seats in Gujarat for the Rajya Sabha, in a border-line case of adjudicating validity of two Congress dissidents’ votes in favour of the BJP candidate, it was the ruling of the Election Commission only that upheld the election of Ahmad Patel, the political secretary of the then Congress President, to the Rajya Sabha declaring two alleged votes cast in favour of the BJP candidate as null and void citing a technical flaw.
Slander, Sex Tapes and Lies:
The current Gujarat election shall be remembered for long for the character assassination of candidates and leaders, circulation of scandalous sex clips, slanderous remarks and dissemination of untruth about the parties and leaders.
After constant flip-flop and bargaining, the Patidar Andolan leader Hardik Patel finally endorsed the Congress campaign vehemently opposing the BJP. While campaigning of the first phase polls was on, a series of video clips surfaced in the social media in which he was found cozying with a woman in a room and taking booze with people. Seemingly, the purpose was to expose his darker side of the personal life which might dither away some followers and voters because personal propitious and chaste are still considered virtues in the public life in India. On this, significant was the reaction and support of the new Dalit leader from Gujarat Jignesh Mevani who defended Hardik Patel by saying that the videos’ release was an act of crime violating the person’s right to privacy and even denied that the person in the videos was Patel.
On the issue of the character assassination and slander, perhaps never in the political history a person has received so much focus and attention as the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Perhaps all sorts of unparliamentary words and slanderous remarks have been dumped on him by his political opponents and critics ever since he started ascending in the national politics, at times crossing all limits of the decency and decorum. The Congress leader be it Rahul Gandhi or second wrung leaders like Anand Sharma freely kept accusing him as a liar and a man with no tolerance and democratic mind-set stooping low in the current elections on the matters of development and personal and professional ethics.
Another Congress veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar created a furore by blurting in press, “Ye aadmi bahut neech kisam ka aadmi hai, is mein koi sabhyata nahi hai, …”. The term Neech literally highlights a person in a very poor light and low esteem with multiple connotations like a banal, degenerate, despicable, contemptible, or even a low born. Only Mr Aiyar would exactly know what he wanted to convey but the term is clearly an unacceptable unparliamentary word of abuse by all means and it instantly generated a sharp reaction from the various echelon including a large section of the public, media and BJP.
As for Rahul Gandhi, the Congress President, he never needed or depended on any opponents or critics for unsolicited or uncomplimentary remarks. A prime ministerial candidate of the Congress since long yet his own demeanour and utterances are often found suffice to generate curiosity, disdain and amusement among the people and the current Gujarat elections were no exception. For instance, in response to a question of a journalist about Rahul Gandhi’s vision on Gujarat, in a thoughtful mood he replied, “Gujarat ka vision Gujarat banayega. Gujarat ka vision Gujarat ki janta ki baat sunkar banega. Rahul Gandhi, Gujarat ke vision ko enable karne mein madad karega, support karega magar Gujarat ko Gujarat chalayega aur Gujarat ke log chalayenge…” (Gujarat will make its vision. It will be made after hearing Gujarat people. Rahul Gandhi will help to enable Gujarat’s vision. He will support it but Gujarat will be run by Gujarat and Gujaratis.)
Prima facie, there is nothing wrong with this cryptic reply but the people certainly want specifics and clarity on the issues. It becomes more so important to come out with clarity on the election agenda and vision when you are the bitter critic of the existing development model and constantly attacking your rival party for misrule and lack of vision. Now that he is inching ahead by assuming the leadership and responsibility of the Congress, he must show a little more maturity and gravity on national issues.
Ridiculing Economic Reforms:
Gandhi scion continued scathing remarks on the economic reforms undertaken by the BJP Government at Centre with a constant rhetoric in public meetings that Mr Modi always tells lies and presents fuzzed data about the progress and development. He coined a new term 'Gabbar Singh Tax' ridiculing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and repeatedly said that it has ruined the industrial and business sector, more particularly small businessmen. Earlier Manmohan Singh, ex-prime minister had described Demonetization as the 'organized loot, legalised plunder' - a very harsh term by all means.
GST became law and implemented nationwide only after the relevant bill was passed by both the houses of parliament and assented by the President. The Congress had majority in the Upper House and it would have not been possible to clear it in the Rajya Sabha without their active support and now they are discrediting it. The BJP too is not raking the issue that indeed it was a joint effort as perhaps they are too happy to fully own it. Similarly, the Demonetization has its merits and demerits but has been largely endorsed by the Indian masses as an effective means to curb the black money. Hence for sure calling it a loot or plunder is too far-fetched, particularly when it comes from an ex-PM and renowned econimist like Dr Manmohan Singh. Indeed strange are the ways of politicians who can stoop to any low in their political pursuit.
Son of the Soil Sentiments:
Both the Congress and BJP leadership left no stone unturned in their campaign including playing the Gujrati sentiments including the son of the soil card. The Gandhi scion, in a meeting in Banakantha district, spoke of his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi’s special liking for Gujarat and their visit to the place as prime minister while asserting at the same time about his own ‘Gujarat connect with a lasting bond’ citing love and affection bestowed on self during the current spell of campaigning in the state. “I have established a lifelong relationship with you all. As long as I am alive, in whichever state or village I may be, if anyone from Gujarat calls for me, I will reach within five minutes,” Gandhi scion stated.
In another high-pitch emotional tone he declared that his kitchen is filled with Gujarati delicacies - "Yesterday, my sister came to my house. She noted that every food item in my kitchen is Gujarati - Khakra Gujarati, Achaar Gujarati, Moongphali Gujarati. You all have spoilt me, I am gaining weight now." Among the emotional tempering, he kept promising debt waiver for state farmers and an assurance on reservation for the Patidars while accusing Prime Minister Modi of personal vendetta and publicity instead of focusing his campaign on the development of Gujarat.
Gimmicks of the Congress leaders really suffered a spin when Prime Minister came out with a master stroke in response to Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘Neech’ remark in an election rally raising the son-of-the-soil sentiment and Gujarat’s pride. “The people would give a befitting reply to those raising questions on Gujarat and its son…This Gujarat son has no stains in his public life. You come to the State and level baseless allegations against the son of the soil, but people of the State will not forgive you,” he said, “The Congress had treated Sardar Patel similarly.”
In a meeting, Mr Modi recalled every single derogatory term used by the opponents during the last few years with vengeance for the first time. He charged the Congress of holding a ‘secret meeting’ with the Pakistani officials to influence the Gujarat elections through polarisation. He also recalled Aiyar’s last visit to Pakistan where he unambiguously spoke with ill-will to his patrons against the BJP government and Modi while simultaneously glorifying General Musharraf of Pakistan during the last UPA regime. In response to Aiyar’s “Hamein le aiye, inko hataiye, aur koi tarika nahi hai.” (Bring us, remove him; there is no other way), Mr Modi questioned if Aiyar had gone to Pakistan for giving ‘Supari’ (killing contract) for him.
Suggesting that the Congress hates Gujaratis, he reminded how Sardar Patel was ill-treated post-independence at the Centre and how Morarji Desai, another son of Gujarat and Gandhian, was removed by Indira Gandhi from his cabinet. Comparing the Gujarat election as a battle between the development and dynasty, Modi stressed that the Congress had never bothered about people, instead cared for only one dynastic family relegating all other important leaders. “They dislike me because of my humble origin. Can a party stoop so low? Yes, a person belonging to a poor family has become Prime Minister. They do not fail to hide their contempt for this fact. Yes, I sold tea but I did not sell the nation,” he said.
In short, Mr Modi referred to many other instances too where the Gujarati born leaders were ill-treated, dislodged or conspired against in the past by the successive Congress governments and leaders. Many political pandits and analysts believe that raising the son-of-the-soil rhetoric against the impromptu mistakes and slips of the Congress leaders really worked in the BJP’s favour and proved quite costly to the Congress during the second phase of the current Gujarat elections.
Altogether a new and at the same time quite surprising and shocking narrative was experienced by the Indian people during the current Gujarat elections. In the past, the Congress had traditionally positioned itself at a distance from any reference or linkage with the terms 'Hindu' or 'Hinduism' since Nehruvian era. The first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the independent India was believed to be even against the re-construction of the legendary Somnath Temple in Gujarat, fearing it might dent his secular credentials. Consequently, the Muslim community traditionally found the Congress as the safest bet for the political leanings voting for the party en mass for several decades till other socialist and regional parties started luring them with attractive packages and promises.
During the Gujarat campaign, Gandhi scion started his campaign from the Dwarkadheesh temple and visited many more, including the famous Akshardham, Jagannath and Somnath temples. To put the record straight, he visited as many as twenty-seven temples during the Gujarat campaign, even inviting a major controversy over his visit to Somnath, where his name was reportedly entered in the register meant for the non-Hindus by his associates. Undoubtedly, the religion of a person is a matter of faith and falls in the private domain and people should not question it. But as the celebrities and public figures are the objects of vast public attention and adoration, hence even their personal life is also often found under the scanner and influence of the same public.
Surprisingly, the Congress party during the campaign not even once raised their traditional narrative of championing the cause of secularism to woo Muslim voters accusing the BJP as the Communal force. Instead, the Gandhi scion is stated to have adopted a ‘soft Hindutva’ approach to attract majority community voters and counter their arch rivals. The Congress leaders even declared Rahul Gandhi as ‘Shiva Bhakt’ (devotee of the Lord Shiva) and the Janeu (sacred thread) wearing Pandit who was also seen Tilak-sporting on many occasions during the campaign. This new incarnation of the Gandhi scion invited constant taunt from the rival party in the state but apparently had gone well with the electorate, the Congress reportedly winning all the four Assembly seats in Gir Somnath district.
While the new found love and austerity of the Gandhi scion for the Hindutva was under debate in Gujarat, the Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, “For Rahul Gandhi, religion is faith, not politics. This is the difference from the BJP.” The issue becomes significant because the Congress has now declared the Gandhi scion as ‘devout Hindu’ while they had been found on the most occasions in the past distancing themselves with the cause of the majority community in the past. In fact, some not so soliciting and innocuous terms like ‘Hindu Terrorism’ and ‘Hindu Nationalism’ are the gifts of some Congress leaders maligning the image of the majority community even beyond the borders of this country. Religious identity of the Nehru-Gandhi family too has often been found shrouded in mystery in the past.
It may be relevant to mention related facts about the first political family of the independent India. Mrs Indira Gandhi, Mr Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother was a Hindu who married Feroze Jehangir Ghandy, a parsi gentleman. Feroze Ghandy, a freedom fighter and political activist, changed his surname to ‘Gandhi’ in later life; yet another narrative suggests that the change was actually adopted at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi. His elder son Rajiv Gandhi married Sonia Gandhi (born Sonia Maino, a Roman Catholic Christian in Italy) with two offsprings Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Religion of the person is ordinarily based on his (or her) parentage; the offspring has a choice to be identified even with the mother’s religion but ordinarily it is the father’s religion which is suo moto applicable. Besides, a person has liberty to choose a religion by going through the prescribed rituals. Being secular is indeed the great and ultimate virtue but whatever religion one follows, it should be with pure and pious mind and not for any particular intended gain or vested interests.
Exploiting Ayodhya Dispute:
Gujarati people are known to be sensitive about the Ram-Janmbhoomi Temple issue at Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. In fact, the issue was an indirect cause too behind the 2002 Gujarat Riots when the alleged burning of a few Bogeys of the Sabermati train by a violent mob caused the death of 59 pilgrims – a precursor for the outbreak of one of the worst ever communal violence in the history of the independent India.
On 5th December 2017, during the final hearing on the Ram-Janmbhoomi - Babri Masjid Title Suit in the Supreme Court, Kapil Sibal, a senior advocate and veteran Congress leader vehemently urged the 3-judge bench to defer the hearing after 2019 Lok Sabha polls due to its huge political ramifications, adding among other things that the court should not be seen as helping the BJP with the Ram Temple issue being one of the highlights in its 2014 election manifesto. Two other counsels of the Muslim side two supported postponement of the case but it was Sibal whose forceful and tinted remarks created political heat nationwide and even rebuke from the Supreme Court bench.
The action of the Congress leader and advocate was widely interpreted as an attempt of dilly-dallying the long outstanding dispute with an intent of political overtone and polarisation of voters, particularly because even the parties of dispute including the AIMPLB and Babri Masjid Action Committee were found keen and quite vocal for an early resolution through court; although the AIMPLB later changed its instance. This gave an instant salvo to the BJP to attack their rivals during the Gujarat campaign citing that everyone wants a time-bound solution except the Congress and their leaders. In a damage control, the Congress leaders and spokesmen tried to distance the party from Sibal’s statement citing it as his personal view as a lawyer.
Divisive Tactics of the Caste Politics:
The Gujarat elections of 2017 will particularly be remembered by the conscious people of the nation for long for the changed strategy and narratives of the grand old party that has been viewed by many as an attempt to divide society for the electoral gains. Instead of playing on the favourite secular versus communal card, the party forged alliance with three young and fiery castiest leaders from Patel (Patidar, an influential and prosperous caste), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs), respectively.
The caste politics is not new in Gujarat as the earlier Congress governments too were actually known and charged with this for long, and the narrative changed to the secular versus communal politics only after the BJP government came in power over two decades back in 1995. Once again, there was a perceptible change in the political ethos, particularly after the Patidar agitation and their community leader young Hardik Patel coming to the fore. In fact, the caste and communal politics in Gujarat during the last 4-5 decades could be a separate topic of an interesting case study revealing how low the political parties and their leaders could stoop to capture popular votes and stay in power but the purpose of this article is limited to the issues of the current election only.
Apart from the Congress and BJP in the fray, the new faces that emerged and the former forged an alliance with were Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani.
Hardik Patel, the face of the Patidar agitation since 2015 for their reservation in the educational institutions and public and private sector jobs, though did not float a new political party but he had enough flip-flop before finally endorsing the Congress after securing a few assembly tickets for his close followers. He vehemently opposed Mr Modi and BJP, held a few election meetings and gave a call to the community for voting in favour of the Congress en mass.
Alpesh Thakor, an OBC leader and the face of the Kshatriya -Thakor community in the state with a focus on the enhanced educational opportunities, finally joined the Congress in October, 2017, and also contested and won the election from Radhanpur in North Gujarat.
Jignesh Mevani became a rallying force and fiery leader of the Dalit community in the Saurashtra region. He supported the Congress giving a call for Dalit votes in its favour, and also contested and won from the Vadgam constituency as an independent candidate.
Out of the three, the Hardik factor was considered by the Congress as the most potent and crucial for garnering the Patidars which form a substantial chunk of votes (14% plus) in Gujarat. In a prolonged pre-poll discussion with the Patidar Andolan leader Hardik Patel, the Congress agreed to make provision for the reservation of Patidars after coming to the power in the state, a possibility that the BJP and legal experts have constantly denied in view of the existing ceiling of 50% laid down by the Supreme Court.
It may be relevant to mention here that initially the reservation for the SCs/STs was catered in the Constitution temporarily with a provision for the review after ten years. Instead, in the following years the Congress and its breakaway splinter leaders/groups increasingly succumbed to the demand of more communities and continued raising the reservation ceiling and space for the appeasement and electoral gains till finally the Supreme Court intervened to fix a ceiling. Remarkably, in the instant case, the party’s choice for negotiation and settlement with Patidars was Kapil Sibal who is known for his mastery in legal jugglery and manipulative skills rather than more moderate leaders and lawyers in the party like Salman Khurshid or Manu Singhvi. Knowing well under the current dispensation that it is not possible to make room for further reservation, both the Congress and Hardik Patel lured Patidars with the promise to make room for the reservation.
The Topsy-turvy Campaign
The Congress started with the slogan ‘Vikas Pagal Ho Gaya’ in Gujarat attacking the policies and development efforts of the BJP. As the campaign and competition thickened, Rahul Gandhi, the star campaigner of the Congress, emerged in a new avatar of ‘Shiva Devotee’ and the Tilak-dhari and Janeu-dhari devout Hindu to consolidate on voters and continued with it on a high-pitch visiting as many as 27 temples. The entire Congress’ campaign in Gujarat revolved around the caste politics forging alliance with three ‘young turks’ Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani representing Patidars, OBCs and Dalits. During the campaign, the Congress and Gandhi scion avoided any reference to Muslims or visiting any minority religious place as a secular leader and also largely remained unable to counter attacks and accusations of the rival BJP.
The BJP started its campaign with vikas (development) agenda as its chief poll plank till about the first phase polling. Thereafter, the strategy changed to playing the nationalist and communal cards with emotive appeal on factors like nationalism, son-of-the soil, Pakistan etc, apparently to counter the Congress strategy. The fuel and excuses for this change were supplied by the Congress itself through the meeting of the Congress leaders with Pakistani diplomats and ex-foreign minister in Delhi, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘Neech’ remark for Prime Minister Modi and Kapil Sibal’s appeal to the Supreme Court to postpone hearing on the Ayodhya dispute. Mr Modi even accused the Congress of colluding with Pakistan to make Ahmed Patel Gujarat’s chief minister.
Rival Parties Celebrated Victory
Notwithstanding the fact that the Congress simultaneously lost two states Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the hands of the BJP, the former with simple majority and the latter with almost two-third majority, the Party President Rahul Gandhi appeared quite jubilant and satisfied as is apparent when he said, “It is a very good result for us…People (in Gujarat) actually do not accept Modiji’s model. It was thought that Congress will not be able to fight BJP in Gujarat…You saw the results and it has dealt a ‘zabardast jhatka’ (terrific blow) to BJP.”
Indeed, strange are the ways of the Indian politicians who are able to find and celebrate victory even in a terrible loss and defeat. So was reported in media that after the declaration of results and sharing thoughts with the media and press, the president of the grand old party went to watch the newly released ‘Star Wars’ movie in the evening. Of course, a minister and leader of the rival party commented that he is under an illusion and enjoying the defeat as a victory that shows his dynastic arrogance and an insult to the people’s mandate.
As for the BJP, the twin wins of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh were described as an endorsement of the party’s development and policies indicating the Union government’s keenness to continue economic reforms. Prime Minister Modi himself hailed the results of the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as an indication of the strong support for politics of good governance and development. While addressing the party workers same evening in New Delhi, among other things Mr Modi said, “…Support for BJP shows the nation is ready for reform agenda and every citizen wants India transformed”.
In a sharp contrast to the Congress President, as per the reports of media Mr Modi quickly switched over to other unfinished business of the day before his scheduled departure to Lakshadweep, Kerala and Tamilnadu to oversee the plight of people and relief work in the Ockhi cyclone-hit areas that particularly left a trail of destruction in the Union Territory recently. In a whirlwind tour, he visited cyclone-battered areas in Lakshadweep, Kerala and Tamilnadu on 19th December, reviewed relief operations and was back to Delhi on the same day by the late evening.
As for the Gujarat election results are concerned, both the winners and losers have celebrated it as a sort of win-win situation. Whatever the Congress leaders publicly speak to glorify or defend the Gandhi scion's leadership, the fact that the BJP has formed consecutive government in Gujarat for the record sixth time and has won Himachal Pradesh mandate by two-third majority speaks of the real outcome. Instead of celebrating it, the legendary Congress needs to do introspection if and how rewarding has been their divisive politics in the name of religion and caste, and if it is not the right time to renounce it in favour of the real issues i.e. development and reform. They also need to ponder why the electorate rejected them so overwhelmingly in Himachal Pradesh with just one term of five years.
Almost every educated Indian agrees that Dr Manmohan Singh was wonderful as a Finance Minister but equally weak and lacklustre as a prime minister. So what was it that hindered his vision and performance for the continued development and reform? They will have to understand that the mediocracy and policy of appeasement cannot help to survive in the politics for a long period. If the electorate is constantly endorsing Mr Modi, it is because he is consistent and his message have not changed. His communication, commitment and action have been found consistent with his intent and vision, and he is able to convince people that he wants to make India great among the top few nations in the world. Besides, he is honest, against corruption, works hard and cares for the people. The same may not be true for all BJP leaders but usually he keeps a distance from such people even in his party.
The criticism of the rival’s policies and action in democracy is alright but the Congress and its leadership should not suffer with delusion. Instead of celebrating marginal gains in Gujarat, they should take a clue and learn from own Himachal experience how difficult is to cop up with incumbency factor in just one term. The fact is their arch rivals were ruling Gujarat for the last 22 years and despite incumbency, resentment among the farmers for not getting desired return for their produce and casteist card played against, the BJP was able to retain power with comfortable majority and increased vote share. Holding the fort against such adverse circumstances shows their political resilience as well as moral strength. This is no less a remarkable feat for the BJP.
The worst part is that the Congress, particularly the Gandhi scion, all along vehemently criticised and ridiculed the Goods & Services Tax (GST) as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ and Demonetization as the ‘organised loot and legalised plunder’ to lure the business community but it was the sweeping mandate and victory in the industrial and business cities of Gujarat which really ensured that the BJP is back in power. So the crux of the matter is whether the Congress will try to learn the real issues and fine tune its strategies to put a healthy fight against their arch rivals in correct perspective in the coming days or continue patting self, ignore the core issues and stay put with the negative diatribe as before.