In the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s home state, winning all 26 Parliament seats.
One of BJP’s key election pitches had been that if Modi became prime minister, he would replicate Gujarat’s model of economic development all over the country, bringing prosperity to all social groups.
Between 2014 and now, some of the sheen has worn off.
The state has witnessed three major agitations, a violent agitation by the Patidars in July 2015 demanding job quotas, a 350-kilometres-long march by thousands of Dalits in 2016 protesting atrocities by cow vigilantes, and a wave of worrying anti-migrant attacks more recently in 2018.
What explains the mass protests now occurring with greater frequency? What is the state of Gujarat’s social and economic development? Will the Opposition be able to provide answers to questions over livelihood and social security? What should one expect as Gujarat goes to polls on April 23?
Ghanshyam Shah, a social scientist and Gujarat watcher, tried to make sense of the questions and choices the state’s electorate face tomorrow. Professor Shah is Director of the Centre for Social Studies, Surat, and Professor in Social Sciences at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of Social Movements and the State, Dalit Identity and Politics, Development and Deprivation in Gujarat, and Public Health and Urban Development: The Study of the Surat Plague, among other books.
Here are excerpts from an interview.
In 2014, the “Gujarat model” was one of the key talking points, but we have not heard it as an issue this time around during the campaigning. What is the cause? What has changed?
The “Gujarat model” has remained the same in the sense the hype around a certain kind of economy continues. But some things which people did not see around 2009, or 2014, or even earlier, is now almost in their face, they experience it. For instance, in Saurashtra, earlier, there was hope ‘paani milega’, that people will get water. Before the Assembly elections of 2017, the Prime Minister inaugurated one phase of the Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation (SAUNI) link project, promising irrigation for drought-affected districts, and now, they have inaugurated another phase. Obviously, some did get water but a majority of people are facing the same problems as before. Their immediate experience is of crisis, now worsened by the drought.
Second, agricultural distress is a pan-India phenomenon, which is a structural problem, and no one can help the situation unless the government makes substantive changes.
Instead, the government is responding with a patchwork of schemes, like giving Rs 2,000 as income support (as the first step of Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi). I do not think it will really pacify the anger in rural areas. But the problem is, what is my alternative?
Do you think the Opposition raised these questions effectively?
The thought that is troubling people is that yes, he (Modi) is not doing anything, he lacks integrity, but people do not have faith in the Indian National Congress.
The Opposition’s role is to catch people’s imagination, to do that, you have to speak a different language. That is what Modi did in 2003, he started speaking a completely different language.
The Indian National Congress is not able to speak a different language. In fact, in policies, both parties are speaking almost the same language and now the Congress is following the footsteps of BJP.
Second, and even more important is the cadre, the contrast in the parties’ frontline structure. All said and done, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a committed cadre with a commitment to Hindu Rashtra, to the security of the Hindus. It is a different thing whether others agree or do not agree, but it is a commitment. Congress does not have any commitment.
When Indira Gandhi made her comeback, post-Emergency, one of the first meetings she held was in an Adivasi area in South Gujrat. There she was referred to as gareeb ki maa, or a mother figure for the poor. At present, Congress does not have anyone who is really committed.
That she is a mother figure of the poor was being portrayed by the party?
No, the people, the people described her like that, that was the imagination, even after the Emergency. One reason was the INC’s gareebi hatao slogan that was very popular in 1972-75. Later, when the Janata Party came to power, the poor suffered here. What they are experiencing now is the same thing, both in Gujarat and other states. After 2014, the upper caste or the Brahmins were confident that they got the vote. The same had happened in 1977. In 1980, particularly the Patidars, the landed class, and the upper strata experienced that Mrs Gandhi was supporting the poor, and now the rich would teach them a lesson. In the next four years, the poor experienced a lot of hardship at the hands of the landed class. Hence, the term gareeb ki ma because of the awas yojana (low-income housing scheme by Gandhi) and such schemes
Now, no one in the Congress is being able to catch the imagination of the poor. I am sure farmers in Gujarat don’t look at this Rs 2,000 cash transfer as a serious or sincere intervention, but the Congress is not able to build on this question…
You are suggesting that the INC is not able to distinguish themselves from the BJP…
I will give you an example. After the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme was announced, the messages being circulated on social media to criticise the move were ‘From tomorrow, you will not be able to get a domestic worker, so accordingly decide whom to vote for’. See, this is the language. This anti-poor mindset is so strong even among those criticising the government…
If I was in the Congress, I would have tried to use this Rs 2,000 offer as an idea to catch people’s imagination. Because who is supporting the BJP? The middle class that is invariably anti-poor, forget about someone being casteist or anti-Dalit, they are simply against the poor. But INC does not challenge this.
Similarly, this chowkidar (nation’s security guard) that the government is trying to campaign on. The BJP organised a chowkidar sabha here. The newspapers quoted security guards of Surat Municipality who earn less than Rs 6,000 in spite of working more than nine hours. Most residential societies, even in big cities, pay security guards an amount of only Rs 5,000-6,000. If anyone questioned this, the residents of these societies would argue against it, ‘What does he do the whole day anyway’, they would argue. This is the mindset. And the question is how can you counter this mindset if you are really sincere? The unfortunate fact is, I would suggest, that activists of the INC come from the same mindset. This is the time they should prove their sincerity, but they cannot. Being anti-Modi is not enough. You have to develop a certain counter-imagination. They have no counter-imagination to the BJP’s.
In July 2015, Gujarat witnessed the Patidar agitation, the first such protest in 10 years. Did it signify cracks in the BJP’s traditional base? How will it affect these elections?
Caste has to be looked at along with class. Patidars are very stratified, not all are rich but relatively, compared to the OBCs, or Dalits, a larger section of the Patidars are middle class. Those who are well-off can patronise. It is not a caste issue alone. In January 2018, in the presence of the Chief Minister Rupani, 10,000 Patidar businesspersons pledged that they will provide jobs to youth from their own community.
Last month, Modi came and attended two Patidar caste functions near Ahmedabad, laying foundation stones for the community’s temples, not to win over Hardik Patel, but to perpetuate his hold over the upper strata of Patidars. The business class among the Patidars want Modi, they are hand in glove.
How do you see Hardik Patel?
He has lost credibility, and secondly, he lacks consistency. He had raised a valid issue of jobs for the middle class, irrespective of caste, as a central issue right now. When I say ‘job’, I mean decent work conditions, a regular job. Any educated person aspires to that. That’s how Hardik Patel got an opportunity to raise an important issue, but he could not sustain it.
There are a number of instances in human history when a certain question is raised at a particular time and people take to the streets, but the important thing is to sustain the mobilisation. One can only sustain it with consistent organisation and clear articulation.
What happened after long drawn protests in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street? They could not sustain change. After Occupy Wall Street, the US has a president like Trump now. There is no doubt that there is dissatisfaction among large sections, but it requires alternative strategies and ideologies which will catch the public imagination. And I believe Hardik Patel lacks this perspective.
I am not sure whether what happened in 2015-16 will translate into votes.
Does the dissatisfaction over lack of good jobs and wages manifest in the protests against migrants?
The Gujarat government has a rule that all industry should employ 85 per cent local workers. But industries do not follow it, this is borne out in government data. If someone sets up an industry, obviously they will calculate how to save on investment and earn more profit. The central issue is all modern technologies are capital intensive. At the same time, a majority of the informal sector are of migrants. We want cheap labour and a certain kind of labour for certain work.
People are not able to compete because Gujarat’s public education system is in a terrible state. ‘If I am an industrialist and can employ a good Bihari worker or a good Odia worker, I would employ them rather than a Gujarati.’ This is what Reliance, Adani and all are doing. Today, the education system is primarily excluding people. Despite the Right To Education, the poor get admitted in government schools where teachers are not available and infrastructure is under-developed. Survey shows that only 14 per cent children in the state can read Gujarati.
What about the mobilisation by Dalits after four Dalit men were flogged in Una?
When mobilising Dalit as Dalit and Other Backward Caste (OBC) as OBC, it is important to look not only at caste but also at class. Jignesh Mevani is trying to do that, some others are trying too. After Una, the Dalits demanded land redistribution. The demand for land was relevant to catch the imagination but was not sufficient to sustain the mobilisation. Una mobilisation could not continue because many Dalits were also the middle class. When this demand was articulated, they withdrew. Those in rural areas could not sustain it because Dalits are often a minority in the village, and the state machinery is against them as it is dominated by upper castes.
At the same time, mobilising around class issues alone no longer works. The market has created such kind of consumption needs that an employee and worker share the same terminology and aspirations. But there is a feeling that some are being exploited by others. One has to develop a different kind of a strategy to articulate this to challenge the current system.
In 2014, as Gujaratis, people wanted a Gujarati PM. Now the BJP is once again trying to make the same argument. Amit Shah said in Gandhinagar, asking people to vote such that they send all 26 seats to two Gujarati leaders. Religious polarisation continues the same as before.
In every local and assembly election, social media is used to reinforce the same prejudices against religious minorities. So this is finally what the BJP has resorted to: they are invoking caste, communalism, and regionalism, all primordial loyalties, and it is a terrible cocktail.