If there is any city that is seen to represent the public anger over demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, it is Surat. Textile traders had shut shop for a fortnight, the diamond market was losing its shine and there was a mood of despondency in Gujarat’s business capital. And yet, the election results show that the BJP has swept all 12 seats in the port city, including the Patel-dominated Varacha Road constituency. In the electoral trajectory of Surat lies perhaps the key to the BJP’s sixth consecutive win in Gujarat.
Surat is typical of Gujarat’s political demographics. Since 1995, urban Gujarat has been a BJP fortress. In this election too, the BJP has swept urban Gujarat, winning 43 of the 55 seats. By contrast, the Congress’s major gains have all come from rural areas, almost reflecting a thumb rule in Gujarat politics: the more proximate you are to the metropolises, the more likely you are to vote for the BJP. In a state with a 43% urban population, one of the highest in the country, that gives the BJP a huge advantage.
It is the BJP’s emotional connectedness with the urban Gujarati mindset that deserves closer examination. Almost all of Gujarat’s cities have a large aspirational middle class that seeks affluence and rapid growth: Narendra Modi described it as the ‘neo-middle class’ in the 2012 elections. For this class, the Modi persona symbolises hope of ‘achche din’, as represented in physical terms by the gleaming flyovers and new townships across these cities. For this class, the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad, for example, is held up as an example of ‘vikas’ as are Surat and Vadodara’s multi-storey malls. It is for this class that the image of Modi campaigning in a sea-plane is so attractive: it only strengthens his image as a Superman-like hero.
These cities are also symbolic of Gujarat’s divided society, cities divided by dark geographical borders between Hindus and Muslims. Almost all of Gujarat’s cities have experienced terrible communal violence in the last two decades. If Ahmedabad and Vadodara were the epicentre of the 2002 violence, it was Surat that was bloodied by the post-Ayodhya rioting in 1992.
The violence ensured a de-facto polarisation of the urban Gujarati voter on stark religious grounds, a divide which persists to this day, one which is consolidated at election time by the politics of fear-mongering. ‘A vote for the Congress is a vote for a return to ‘curfew’ or ‘Latif raj’’, warned the BJP’s campaign, a reference to Ahmedabad’s underworld don who was accused of being patronised by previous Congress governments. By contrast, for the urban Gujarati, Modi is not just a vikas purush, but also a Hindu Hriday Samrat, an image that was stitched in the aftermath of the 2002 riots when Muslims were seen to be have been ‘taught a lesson’.
It is this urban affinity for Modi and the BJP that has held up against the strong anti-incumbency that built up across rural Gujarat as a result of voter fatigue, farmer anger and political arrogance. It is here where the Congress narrative of questioning the Modi government’s ‘vikas’ model never quite took off in the face of a marked improvement in civic amenities in the cities.
It is the urban Gujarati, seeking peace and financial security, who was wary of Hardik Patel’s brand of muscular caste-driven reservation politics: even urban Patels – especially the older generation — seem to have seen themselves as Hindutva warriors first rather than becoming part of Hardik’s ‘army’.
The Congress’s appeal of change resonated in many parts of rural Gujarat because the Modi model offered no solution to genuine agrarian distress and the prime minister’s shrill rhetoric was unappealing. It didn’t work in an urban milieu that still sees the prime minister as an agent of an aspirational new order and the Congress as part of a discredited ancien regime.
Will this sharp urban-rural divide extend beyond Gujarat in the run-up to 2019? The answers are blowing in the wind.
Post-script: In Ahmedabad, I met an elderly shop-keeper who was angry with the state government firing on Patel youth. ‘So, will you vote for Hardik and Congress?” I asked. His answer: ‘Ham Hardik ko pasand karte hain, lekin hum dil se Hindutvawadi hain!” In rural Gondal, I asked a farmer about the emotional appeal of Hindutva: ‘Hindutva se pet nahi bharta!’ One state, sharply differing voter attitudes, Gujarat in 2017 is a mirror cracked