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Gujarat Assembly election 2017: The Paradoxes of populism

When his general Tanaji died in the battle for Singhdurg, Shivaji said 'Gadh aala pan singh gela' (We won the fort but the lion is dead). BJP has won Gujarat, but lost its lion, the moral high ground

Mrinal Pande 

Narendra Modi in Gujarat
Narendra Modi in Gujarat Photo: PTI

The Gujarat election results are out and we know that the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by its miracle man, Narendra Modi, is goung to form a government in the state – for a sixth straight term. But even its sympathisers concede that it has lost its moral high ground. Mrinal Pande looks at the election results and analyses what it means for the BJP and what the Congress should do to use the denting of its adversary’s armour to its advantage.


A week before the usually reliable and highly placed sources from the English media began reporting that the state elections in Gujarat would again confirm a populist vote for the (BJP), this columnist was in Ahmedabad. A faint feeling of boredom, or of waiting, pervades everything among the young in most towns of India – and Ahmedabad was no exception. Advertisements everywhere were announcing growth and happiness, with prominently displayed faces of the miracle man, – Gujarat Gaurav, the pride of Gujarat. These self-laudatory proclamations are not rare. They are routinely issued in the media through the year by all BJP-run state governments, as well as central agencies, to announce or celebrate anything – from a marathon run for a cause to supply of gas cylinders to housewives. They tell us about the ‘vikas’ under a charismatic leadership – referring to public welfare schemes like the Jan Dhan Yojana, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Education for All, and empowerment of women as part of the ‘Save The Girl child’ as some of the big goals for the state. But how much of the popular faith that brought the BJP to power at the Centre in 2014 has remained intact in the year after a hasty demonetisation and GST, with growth indicators sliding alarmingly? Does the BJP winning Gujarat for a sixth term mean that secretariats, banks and party offices in Gujarat were somehow able to hold out an invisible beam of sanity to people even during the darkest period after the chaotic currency scene? While the BJP celebrates its victory, and each major leader mouthing asserts messages about his or her invincibility and Modi’s great popularity, the saner minds within the party must be engaged on a serious rethink over the subtler messages emanating from the emergence of three fiery young men in the Opposition – Hardik Patel, and These young men are all the product of the Modi brand of populism that marks periods of social change, economic stagnation, job scarcity and xenophobic assertion for their rights by ‘Bhumi Putras’ or the local sons of the soil. In 2014, when Modi had left a thriving Gujarat to make a bid for the Big Throne in Delhi, India was thriving, too. So, a great wave of populism was whipped up by the BJP, cleverly using the media and the new information technology, discrediting the incumbent Congress government of as weak and back-seat driven by and her son Rahul, both constantly lampooned and heckled as culturally alien to Indians. This was further accompanied by chest thumping from the ‘Vikas Purush’, or the embodiment of development himself. This strategy worked and carried Mr Modi to a thumping win in the 2014 elections. While Mr Modi was trotting the globe winning friends and influencing people, back in Gujarat the post-Modi years saw the populist wave cresting and deep conflicts developing within. The rise and rise of a Patidar leader like Hardik, who hit the BJP where it was the most vulnerable, was almost preordained in this scenario. Hardik, having learnt his populist political tricks through a study of Mr Modi, today embodies the paradoxes of populism. In 1985, the Patidar community had ended its agitation against reservation with an appeal to all poor Gujaratis to beat back the North Indians cornering precious jobs in the state. Hardik saw this was not going to work anymore, since the jobs themselves were evaporating, with development sputtering and stalling. Relaunching anything – from a flagging product to a failing leadership in India – mostly turns out to be an exercise in pouring of old wine in attractive and expensive new bottles by clever leaders. So, Hardik urged fellow Patels to unite and ask for reservations for themselves. And, just as the wily Brahmin priests once used terms like ‘Swaha’ , ‘Swadha’ and ‘Namo namah’, Hardik came out with the slogan Vikas has gone mad (Gando)! With this, he made his goal for Patidars ‘look’ like a radical departure from their predecessors’ – even though it is not substantially different, given the specific caste calculus and financial compulsions that drive state government formations from Gandhinagar to Chandigarh and Chennai. So the big beneficiaries of the Gujarat elections this time are three young followers of populism unleashed by – Hardik Patel, and They have smoothly internalised that Modi’s brand of successful poll rhetoric is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. And, while addressing mammoth rallies of the jobless young, or TV cameras, they have spoken of binaries – political and social – as a holy battle between the good and the evil, and demanded simple answers to different problems. (Will we put up with the nation’s food grower Patidars’ marginalisation, while the upper caste corporates flourish? Hasn’t ‘Vikas’ turned rogue?). Despite their support for the Congress, they are likely to remain suspicious of normal bargaining and any compromise in the name of democracy, should their time come.

They have learnt their politics at the knee of Mr Modi. They are all public orators in his mould and can match him word for word, taunt for taunt, street credential for street credential – shooting straight from the hip. Another notable point was that the battle in Gujarat was an all-male battle from the word go. The stance was as masculine and macho as can be – crude innuendos and the harshest slurs and aspersions cast on opponents’ malehood. Even women leaders, including former chief minister Anandiben Patel, remained conspicuously absent. She was seen only in one memorable visual where she was showing an ink-stained finger to the cameras after casting her vote. Truth, as Gloria Steinem famously said, might set you free, but first it would piss you off! and his Congress should face the truth of Gujarat and through that the truth about real challenges they will face, no matter what. The biggest challenge is to build the party and make it aggressively self-sufficient by actively encouraging other younger leaders to come up, never mind if they pose a challenge to Rahul later. In Gujarat or most states of India, Congress has no scaffolding left worth its name – there are no young leaders with spunk and promise. The tough resistance put up by the Congress, with help from the triad of young leaders, was – all said and done – far from an organically developed unity of ideology and purpose. Then, the cultural alienation Shankersinh Vaghela hinted at and stated bluntly, must go, as soon as possible. Like Mr Modi, these young new leaders from Gujarat (and many others who might be waiting in the wings throughout the land), are ambitious and will not be easy allies. They have no history of loyalty to any one leader and will happily play their game in 2019, after having weighed their own needs. Eventually, the Congress under Rahul must do some serious introspection and use the severe denting of their adversary’s moral armour in the Gujarat elections to its advantage. “Gadh aala pan singh gela”, (We won the fort but the lion is dead!) – Shivaji famously said when his right-hand general died in the battle for Singhdurg. BJP has won the fort in Gujarat, but even its sympathisers concede that it has lost the lion: Its moral high ground. The last part of its electioneering was particularly obscene and horrifying, with its crass language and overt communal propaganda. This brand of populism has already created three young clones of Namo back in Gujarat, the Congress must be wary of treading the same path – Janeu and all. Mrinal Pande is a journalist and author. She is the former editor of Hindi daily, Hindustan. She tweets as @mrinalpande1

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Mon, December 18 2017. 17:49 IST
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