It may be coincidental, but it is perhaps only appropriate that the Gujarat elections are being held in the week of the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. The BJP, after all, hasn’t lost a single election in Gujarat over this period and the rath yatra, which led to the Babri Masjid’s destruction, rolled out from the state. In the aftermath of the demolition, the BJP lost elections across several north Indian states but Gujarat has remained a saffron bastion, the original Hindutva laboratory whose political narrative has been shaped by the forces that spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Remember, it was Narendra Modi who planned the first leg of the rath yatra from Somnath through Gujarat in 1990: It was his original moment in the political sun. LK Advani, the ideological mascot and leader of the temple movement, also chose Gandhinagar as his Lok Sabha constituency, reaffirming the strong connect between the BJP and Gujarat. Many of the kar sevaks – the footsoldiers who participated in the Ram shila pujan -- were from Gujarat. The VHP in particular, enjoyed a dominant position in Gujarat: Its Gujarat-based leader Praveen Togadia was once the most-powerful man in the state. Some VHP cadres were at the forefront of the horrific 2002 Gujarat rioting to ‘avenge’ the Godhra train burning.
In no other state has the BJP so unapologetically practised the politics of ‘hard Hindutva and pushing for a consolidated Hindu vote. This year is no different. The BJP may talk loftily of ‘vikas’ and the Gujarat model of growth, but on the ground, there has always been a conscious attempt to stoke religious identity. Why else would chief minister Vijay Rupani warn his voters of a return to ‘Latif Raj’ if the Congress comes to power? (Latif was a gangster who was patronised by the political class in the 1980s and 90s). Why else would BJP president Amit Shah raise the issue of Rohingya Muslims in an election rally in Bhavnagar? And why would Modi refer to ‘Aurangzeb Raj’ by selectively quoting Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar? And why would local BJP leaders describe the young opposition troika of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mewani as ‘HAJ’ or indeed, remind voters that Congress leader Ahmed Patel is a ‘Miyan’?
The potency of the BJP’s Hindutva appeal has meant that the Congress has abandoned any pretence of standing by ‘secular’ values in Gujarat. No Congress leader dares mention the 2002 riots for fear of stirring another Hindu-Muslim polarisation. Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping spree has been designed to send the message that the Congress is not an ‘anti-Hindu’ party as the BJP has successfully managed to portray so far. The state’s 10% Muslims are now inconsequential to its politics.
And yet, there are winds of change blowing across Gujarat’s dusty tracks that have made this an unusual election. The clamour for Patidar reservations is one sign that the notion of a unified ‘Hindutva’ identity is slowly beginning to crack. The demand for diluting the Goods and Services Tax is a reflection of trader anger at what is perceived as high-handed government intervention in the business cycle in a state where ‘dhandho’ (business) is the ultimate driving force. When cotton farmers in Saurashtra demand a hike in the minimum support price, when students in Mehsana protest against high fees in private institutions, when businessmen in Surat insist nothing happens in Gandhinagar without a bribe, there is a genuine sense that Gujarat is no longer easily swayed by high-pitched Hindu-Muslim rhetoric. After 22 years of near-uninterrupted BJP rule, a measure of anti-incumbency has finally set in.
Which is why the BJP has been forced to play its ultimate ‘brahmastra’ in Gujarat: The appeal of Modi as the son-of-the-soil who embodies a sense of Gujarati pride. The prime minister’s charisma maybe fraying at the edges, but he remains a magnet for the pragmatic Gujarati who realises the benefits of having a central government that will not be hostile to Gandhinagar. The urban Gujarati in particular seems to be willing to give the BJP one more chance, one reason why the party with its strong organisational machine should still win the winter election. But even if it wins the election, the BJP must realise that it is slowly losing the narrative: the large crowds which leaders like Hardik Patel are attracting is proof that the younger Gujarati voter will no longer be taken for granted.
Henceforth, the politics of religion may be subject to diminishing returns.
Post script: In Surat, a group of traders, traditional BJP supporters, angrily castigate the government. So who will you vote for, I ask. ‘Vote to BJP ko hee denge, hum naaraz hai, gaddar nahi!’ (We are angry but not traitors).