The frenzied response from the 12,000-strong crowd in Prantij (Sabarkantha district), about an hour away from Ahmedabad, makes it seem as though it is a meeting being addressed by a fiery opposition leader about to dislodge an unpopular incumbent government on its last legs. Only, the public meeting is being addressed by Narendra Modi, incumbent CM of Gujarat for 11 years!
How does one explain this paradox This is the most interesting aspect of the Gujarat elections. Modi doesnt talk much about his local achievements simply because he doesnt feel so compelled to do so. He largely focuses his attack on the Congress government and the Gandhi family at the Centre. In another public meeting outside Vadodara, sections of the crowd happily declare Modi as the next prime minister of India. Modi has established a dialogic way of communication. Short questions are followed by quick, eager answers from the crowd, as if on cue. At the end of this indulgently predetermined dialogue with the crowd, it becomes somewhat apparent that Modi is eager to move on from Gujarat to the national scene sometime soon. This is precisely what makes Gujarat elections so interesting.
Modi seems to have established a new political vocabulary to communicate with the urban Gujarati so visible in his last election meeting in Prantij. This new vocabulary is an odd mixture of how India needs a break from the tradition of the Gandhi family-run Congress defining hamari deshbhakti. Strangely, in this 45-minute speech, he devotes some 20 minutes to a contentious foreign policy issue how Sir Creek, a 9,000-sq km marshy water body with oil and gas resources on the border of Kutch and Sindh is to be divided between India and Pakistan. Modis unusually long discourse on Sir Creek and his accusation that the Centre may be bartering Indias interests away to Pakistan partly reveal how he is converting an Assembly election into a platform for a future national election. Indeed, Modi does this very cleverly by employing his new political vocabulary of nationalism based on some of the bitter memories of the average urban Gujarati with neighbouring Pakistan. He invokes the humiliation faced by the Gujaratis at the hands of Pakistan when a private plane flying state chief minister Balwantrai Mehta was shot down by the Pakistani air force, killing the CM. Mind you, Modi is doing all this when a high-level official delegation from Pakistan is in New Delhi to discuss very delicate issues. Modi is actually talking to Delhi, though nominally he is addressing small crowds of Gujarati voters.
Modis electoral strength is derived from the urban Gujarati voter who seems to be eating out of his hands. And nearly 55% of Gujarat is urban, unlike the national average of 30% urban population. This is precisely what Modi is banking on to give BJP another term in the state. The only debate at the popular level in Gujarat is whether Modi will get 15 seats less or more.
In 2007, the BJP got 117 assembly seats out of the total strength of 182. The Congress had got 59 seats.
The second narrative which has gained some ground, if you go by what the bookies in the betting market have revealed in the last 24 hours, is that the extraordinarily high voting about 71% in the first phase could help the Congress and former BJP leader Keshubhai Patels newly-formed outfit, Gujarat Parivartan Party. According to this narrative, Modis development efforts are limited to very urban centres a la Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and havent percolated to the rural and tribal areas. Indeed, evidence on the ground does show that there is immense scarcity of water and electricity in rural areas. Keshubhai Patel is exploiting this to the hilt among his Leuva Patel support base in Saurashtra and Kutch. However, the counter-question here is, why couldnt Keshubhai dent Modis votes in Saurashtra in 2007
Keshubhai, of course, answers that question saying the opposition to Modi was not so widespread in 2007. He claimed Saurashtra is ready to vote against Modi today. Keshubhai also says this time round, RSS workers are not working at all for Modi in Saurashtra and Kutch, which has the largest chunk of 58 seats in the Gujarat Assembly.
Saurashtra, therefore, holds the key to whether Modi does better than last time or much worse. Saurashtra has been a bit of a puzzle even for psephologists. For instance, well-known psephologist Yogendra Yadav, now a member of Arvind Kejriwals party, had predicted a wave against Modi in Saurashtra in 2007. After the results came out, Yadav admitted, in a newspaper article, that he had predicted the wave alright but did not know it was going Modis way!
Indeed, one cannot be quite sure how Saurashtra behaves this time. In 2007, Modi managed to muster 43 of the 58 seats. He may fall from this peak but how much is difficult to predict. If the narrative that the much higher voting in Saurashtra constitutes an anti-incumbency wave is to be believed, Narendra Modi may receive a setback. However, Modi may well make it up by getting higher number of seats in the rest of Gujarat where he is stronger.
A senior central BJP leader argued that Modi, probably realising that there will be some anti-incumbency caused by two terms, has tried to convert the election into a referendum on himself, especially considering there is no visible leader on the other side. The Congress, seeing that it has no visible leader, has focused its campaign on development failures bijli, sadak, paani at the constituency level in the rural areas. And the third factor, Keshubhai Patel, is simply playing the caste card. How this complex play will translate in electoral terms is anybodys guess, until 20 December when the results will be out.