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Dhando paani in the time of Moditva

Nistula Hebbar  |  New Delhi 

Five crore Gujaratis or five crorepatis? The election build-up has been shrill but Nistula Hebbar says that behind the glitz of development is the squalor of those the reforms are hurting badly.
Two days before campaigning is to be suspended for the Gujarat Assembly polls, cyber fans of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi complain that they are unable to open his website. Even a site that diehard fans have set up, unsurprisingly called, opens to a dating site. Congress conspiracy, or too many hits leading to a crash? When it comes to Narendra Modi, anything is possible.
As I land in Ahmedabad, on my way to cover the Assembly elections in his state, it is Modi who is everywhere "" on ringtones "Modi ko harana mushkil hi nahin, namumkin hai" to the TV delight that is the Modi mask.
"Hello, madam, I am Narendra Modi," says one mask wearer to me when I visit the BJP office. "And I am Sakina Banu and will not vote for you," I tell him, just to be provocative.
For a lot of people outside Gujarat, Modi's developmental claims "" his electrification of over 17,000 out of 18,000 villages in the state, his success in reducing girl child dropout rates in school from 48.3 per cent in 1997-98 to 11 per cent in 2005-06, and the fabulous highways (19,000 km) and rural roads (30,000 km, all black topped) "" are all eclipsed by the riots of 2002.
An election that saw Modi romp home with a majority of 127 of a total 187 seats in the Assembly, with the Congress a distant second, a few independents and one seat for the Janata Dal (U). Traditional strongholds of the Congress in the tribal belt had also crumbled in the face of this onslaught.
On arrival, I made my way to Sarkhej, a sprawling ghetto close to the highway outside Ahmedabad occupied by members of the minority community.
According to an estimate by the Gujarat Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the state suffered losses of up to Rs 22.5 billion during the riots. Ismail bhai, better known as Narendra Modi's Muslim classmate, owned four hotels in Ahmedabad, not a single one of which survived. Five years after the riots, Ismail bhai has a hotel and a restaurant, but with two Hindu partners.
"Dhando paani (business) has to go on," says his associate. A real estate boom is on in Ahmedabad, but most Muslims are restricted to ghettos in Sarkhej. The minority grouse is that their areas barely scrape the rates that Hindu zones get (yes, there is apartheid), and so to get a part of this pie, the Muslims are getting Hindu partners and buying into the action. The bitterness exists, but there is also the determination to get on with life.
This dedication to a business ethic has seen Gujarat control the world's trade in diamond polishing and cutting, produce 45 per cent of pharma products in India, and seen Kandla port control a third of the country's exports.
But..."Madam, this is all a sham, you travel to Amreli, the farmers are unhappy, go meet the real Gujaratis," says Praveen Kotadiya, a youth Congress leader, to my wide-eyed recounting of these facts. "Instead of vibrant Gujarat, Modi has sent vibrations and shaken everything up," he says with a cynical laugh.
In fact, it is not the secular challenge to Modi which is the worrying factor, but the Sardar Patel Utkarsh Samiti, headed by BJP's own dissidents, headquartered in Amreli. People who were MLAs and ministers in Modi's government are openly campaigning against him, calling him a dictator and worse.
The RSS and the VHP too are keeping away, sulking over their treatment by Modi. In Saurashtra, home of the dissidents and the Leuwa Patel caste, the severity of the raids on farmers to curb power theft and the big fines being imposed are being highlighted.
Jyotigram, Modi's pet project through which 17,826 of a total of 18,065 villages in Gujarat now get 24 hours of power, has also seen many farmers committing suicide, unable to pay the price of stolen power. With over 13.89 lakh connections sealed by the Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Limited, Modi will have to pay a political price for it.
In Amreli district in Saurashtra, the Takani family lost four members only recently, unable to pay the Rs 3 lakh fine imposed on them. "My uncle, aunt and my grandparents stole away in the night to Somnatheswar and drowned themselves in the sea," says nephew Mansukh bhai Takani. He has had to leave his diamond polishing job in Surat to take care of those left behind.
"Farming is no good, the ground water is depleting and input costs are going up," he says. "I cannot lock up and leave, but what should I do?" he asks. Saurashtra accounts for 52 of the 87 seats which went to the polls on December 11.
In Rajkot and in Kutch, Sonia Gandhi talks about these issues at her rallies, in the midst of a Gujarati rendition of Latina pop star Shakira's "Hips don't lie, now called Panjo (or hand, the Congress's symbol). Gandhi is trying to create the magic of the 2004 General Elections, where India Shining was defeated by the anger of the farmers.
The Congress's slogan "Chak De! Gujarat" is emblazoned across the dias. Innovas, rented for two months, sport the slogan. "The Innovas bought for the Uttar Pradesh campaign have not been returned, so the Gujarati common sense was that if we rent, we reduce the liability," says a Congress worker. Dhando paani rules, I think.
As Sonia Gandhi arrives in a helicopter, the crowd forgives her stiff style, the cheers as much for the helicopter as Sonia Gandhi herself. Posters of Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi adorn the stage. The crowds are impressive "" for some, like in Bhuj, this is high entertainment indeed.
On the same day that she makes the famous "Maut ke saudagar" speech at Navsari, this crowd wants some pyrotechnics, but must remain satisfied with the helicopter. Congress leaders counter Modi's avowed devotion to "five crore Gujaratis" by saying that he has replaced them with "five crorepatis". The implication is that only big business has done well. In the same breath, they confide, should they come to power, they too are ready to do business with anyone.
In contrast, Modi's rallies are instructions in Moditva. He travels by road in a converted rath, arriving at election meetings to be greeted by his own doppelgangers wearing the Modi mask, and is showered with rose petals.
His style is interactive, dramatic. He poses questions, the crowd answers. "Did Ram exist?" he parleys. Yes, answers the crowd. "Did he go to Lanka to rescue Sita?" he asks again. Yes, thunders the crowd. "But the Congress says there was no Ram," he says. "They lie," roars back the crowd. "This is Italian mud being slung, and a lotus [the BJP symbol] will bloom," he says, referring to Sonia Gandhi's speeches. The youth, especially, hang on to his every word.
"He was a sanyasi earlier, you know, he used to beg for alms, and that is why he knows the problems of the people," says one young man in the crowd. No such official record exists, of course.
Another whispers that when Modi was in jail during the Emergency, he wrote a book on his philosophy. "What book was that, Mein Kampf?" asks a reporter, clearly not a fan. This is the sort of legend that has grown around Modi, part fact, part fiction.
In Bhuj, we check into Prince Hotel, once the pride of Kutchh, now only one of the many three-star establishments that have come up in the area since it became a boom town. With over $34 billion in investment and a rehabilitation tax holiday being declared in the region following the 2001 earthquake, the survivors of Bhuj have seen their incomes skyrocket. The hotel is full to the brim with wedding parties; this is, after all, wedding season in Gujarat.
Alarmed by the seeming flight of potential voters, a "pehle matdaan, phir kanyadaan (vote first, honeymoon later)" movement is being run by both parties. Newlyweds Jigar and Shivangi of Bharuch in south Gujarat postponed their honeymoon to vote on December 11. "We couldn't let Narendra bhai down," says Jigar, splashed across all the major Gujarat dailies.
In Bhavnagar I meet Arun Mehta, the only Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate in the fray. This time round he has Congress support. "Unlike what you think, this is not simply an entrepreneurial state, there are labour problems here, and Bhavnagar has been hit hard by raids to curb power theft "" nearly 4,000 raids have taken place in Bhavnagar alone," he says. "And no, Nandigram is not an issue here," he adds defensively.
What does all this mean? Amidst the glitz of beautiful roads, electrified villages, booming industry, broadband connections in remote areas, and a leader who has captured the imagination not just of the state but the whole country, is there an underbelly of dissatisfaction.
Is it enough to pull off an upset victory by the Congress? The answer to that will be evident enough on December 23. As for me, it is enough that Gujarat has become more than just a prohibition state improbably populated by vegetarians with a talent for business.

First Published: Sat, December 15 2007. 00:00 IST