Friday, January 4, 2013

Valiantly holding the flag high

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 11)


A visitor to Gujarat will feel instantly at home in Vadodara. The city has a cosmopolitan air that comes perhaps from a large number of higher education institutions which are located in and around the town. The fabled Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III dominates the third largest city in the State. To him goes the credit of laying the foundations for a robust education system, including a university and a library culture. The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda is named after him, as is a park in the heart of the city, and various other institutions and commercial complexes. Because the educational network, which also includes a fashion designing institute, attracts students from across the country, the cosmopolitan touch has pervaded through society. And, while not all of these youngsters are eligible to vote in the city, their outlook is in general reflective of the political mood in Vadodara. The city is for the BJP led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, though some experts believe that the situation in the rural areas which fall in the district may not be emphatically in favour of the party.
From Alkapuri to Kothi Chaar Rasta to the MS University and beyond as one moves to the edge of the city towards the airport (dilapidated and badly maintained, leading the auto-rickshaw driver who drove me there to suggest that Mr Modi must take it over to improve its fate), people do not see an alternative to Mr Modi. In fact, it is in Vadodara (nobody in the city calls it by that name, preferring instead the more compact Baroda) that one hears the term ‘development politics’ the most often. Bharatbhai Solanki has a readymade garments’ store right opposite the university, an area teeming with mouth-watering streetside fastfood joints. He is 60 years old and claims to have voted in every election over the last three decades. Once a committed Congress supporter, he has switched sides. “2002 is past. Why are people still talking about it when we are trying to move ahead and leave the unpleasantness behind?” he demands to know rather abruptly. I had merely asked him for his opinion on the general political climate in the city and around. “Look at the development all around. The political climate you are talking of has to do with the conducive business environment. Why even discuss divisions in society when financial empowerment is
bridging divides?”
I gently remind him that economic prosperity is not everything; all sections of society must feel safe and have a sense of ownership in the prosperity which he talks of. I was playing the devil’s advocate, and he shrewdly realises it. Mr Solanki has experienced many elections and many more political leaders. “Everyone is safe. If someone feels unsafe, it is due to his mindset, and not because of ground reality. Nothing can be done about that”, he brushes aside my misgivings as he dispenses with a customer who had purchased a couple of vests and towels. My final query: Why did he dump the Congress? “Narendrabhai is better. He has performed, and the State has benefitted from the BJP rule under his leadership. The Congress does not even have a State-level leader to match his stature, let alone performance.”
An apparently well-to-do gentleman in Alkapuri is struggling to silence the alarm that had gone off in his car because someone had brushed against the vehicle’s door a little too hard. For officialdom, Alkapuri is important. The Collector’s official residence is located on the main road, and so are the Circuit House and the residence of a Principal Magistrate — all in the same row. On the other side are small but swanky commercial complexes. This is where the gentleman in question is engaged in the small technical act. After furtively pressing buttons on the key of his remote lock, he manages to silence the siren. He looks as relieved as, well, a person who has just relieved himself. “Of course I will vote for the BJP, and so will many others, only and only because of Narendra Modi. Look at the development he has done. The Congress could not do in 40 years what he has done in 10.” But Gujarat has always been a developed State. What is Mr Modi’s contribution? He looks at me like I had arrived from another planet. “Are you a Congressman?” he demands to know in a suspicious manner. “This is just what the Congress workers have been telling people in the city. If he has done nothing, why have the people voted for him in the last two elections? Why have they voted for his party in every other kind of election in the last 10 years? Are the people of the State fools to be misled by propaganda every now and then?”
But Vadodara-based journalist Hemant Vyas believes that people are also not fools to be taken in completely by Mr Modi’s claim of development. “If you go into the rural areas, you will get a different perspective”, he says. Vyas has been closely tracking politics of the State for years now, and says that the BJP and the Congress will be engaged in stiff combat in rural Gujarat. “Take Waghodia, which is some 30 kilometres from Vadodara. The BJP is facing rebellion there, with the disgruntled workers backing Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party and an independent who has quit the BJP. The Congress too is strong here because it commands the loyalty of the Patel community”, he states, adding that the contest there is between two Patels. Vyas thinks a similar game could be played out in the rest of rural Gujarat as well. The adivasi (or tribal) factor is also an important element here. “When we talk of rural constituencies around Vadodara, we cannot ignore the fact that the Congress does have a strong sway among the tribals. It’s true that the BJP has made inroads over the years, but the Congress still has an edge”, he emphasises. His analysis is that the BJP will win in the five odd seats in Vadodara and adjacent constituencies, but in the eights seats flung far away from the city, the Congress could well bag six. He again underlines that a similar game could be played out in the rest of the State, though to what extent that is going to really affect the BJP overall, remains to be seen.
Vyas, however, does not accept the general impression that the Muslims will en bloc vote against the BJP in the State. “Over the years, sections of the Muslim community — for instance the Bohras — have moved towards Mr Modi. The process began in 2007 and seems to have gained strength over time”, he claims. The Vadodara-based journalist also does not accept the argument that Mr Modi’s Sadbhavna Yatra has been a waste. “You watch, it’ll yield results”, he confidently adds. Well, December 20 is not too far away. Vyas is quick to offer his assessment of the seats that the parties will get. “The BJP will get around the same number that it won in 2007, and the Congress can win 65 plus. I do not believe that the GPP will manage more than three seats across the State.” Mr Modi is not going to be content with that tally. He is hoping to breach the so-far unbroken record that Congress’s Madhavsinh Solanki had set with 149 seats in 1985. But with the GPP breathing down his neck, the Congress refusing to yield its traditional votes in rural Gujarat and a level of anti-incumbency, he may have to wait another day.

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