How Important Is Communal Politics to Gujarat? In Final Phase, State Faces Crucial Question

As BJP's all-out effort to focus its campaign on communal lines rose to a crescendo, Congress's canvassing efforts have largely – and intentionally – been quiet. Can AAP hurt BJP as much as it can hurt Congress?

Ahmedabad: Two days before the second phase of Gujarat elections today, December 5, a few Gujarati media reports contending that the Congress planned to appoint a chief minister belonging to the Other Backward Classes and three deputy chief ministers, one each from Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities, caught the Bharatiya Janata Party off guard.

The news reports attributed the information to Congress sources, although the party’s top leaders neither denied nor accepted the claim. 

The BJP had been banking on its “Gujarati pride” campaign, while the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party raised issues around health, education, and agriculture. The Congress primarily relied on its social engineering formula of consolidating the OBC, Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities but could not openly campaign around identity-centric issues. Rather, it focused on constituency-specific concerns and candidate’s own goodwill through its silent but targeted door-to-door campaign over the last six months. 

Many observers in Ahmedabad believed that the news reports were a last-ditch effort by the grand old party ahead of the second phase – which will see voting in places considered to be BJP’s stronghold – to reassert its social strategy in an attempt to offset the Hindutva juggernaut.

Any open declaration of its social strategy would have given BJP an opportunity to create a ‘Hindutva versus caste’ binary, something that the Congress was happy to dodge, observers felt. 

The news reports surfaced against the backdrop of the last-minute high-pitched campaign by the BJP on Hindutva issues.

For over two months, the saffron party almost entirely canvassed on its plank of “Gujarati pride”. That Gujaratis are known internationally because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, who remain the most popular political leaders in the state, and that these two are the sole reason for the resolution of many international and national crises were the campaign planks used by the saffron party.

Amit Shah shows the ink on his finger after voting. Photo: Twitter/@AmitShah

However, towards the last leg of the elections, BJP top leaders, including Modi and Shah, recalled the anti-Muslim riots of 2002.

They exhorted people to elect BJP again for a “riot-free” Gujarat and if they did not want frequent “curfews” that marked the state because of communal tensions. Shah, in fact, was more direct when he recalled how rioters (read Muslims) were “taught a lesson” in 2002.

Also read: BJP May Score on Gujarati Pride, but It Won’t Be an Easy Victory

The BJP manifesto spoke about creating an anti-radicalisation task force, underlining the assumption that only Muslims walked the path of extremism. It also promised to create a commission that would monitor Wakf Board properties and madrasas. 

The saffron party only followed a pattern similar to the past elections – campaign on development issues but never abandon its core Hindutva. Ahmedabad-based senior journalist Hari Desai told The Wire that the propagating anti-Muslim sentiment is essential for the BJP to consolidate Hindus at the time of elections. “It helps the BJP to garner votes of those Hindus who may have become tentative supporters,” he said. 

The Hindutva line becomes significant for the BJP especially in the 93 seats of central and north Gujarat in the second phase of elections. A majority of a total of 80 urban seats in the state are among the 93 constituencies. These are considered to be BJP strongholds where Hindutva is a strong currency, and over the last few elections it has outperformed the Congress which have banked on material issues and social justice politics, which require a consolidation of OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. 

For the Congress to indirectly declare that it will be led by these groups if elected to power is clearly a tactical attempt to trump the BJP in its own backyard. Whether true or not, the BJP’s anxiety reflected in the way many of its top leaders raked up 2002’s memories among Hindus in trying to convert the elections into a matter of “Hindu security”. 

Ironically, Muslims who since 2002 have lived in the fear of majoritarian aggression continue to speak mostly about livelihood issues and developmental concerns.

Kailm Siddiqui, an Ahmedabad-based activist, told The Wire that the biggest issue for Muslims is security and an all-round discrimination both at the hands of the Hindus and the state forces but they are still looking forward. “The high-pitch Hindutva campaign only reflects BJP’s anxiety. It is aware of the growing discontent against the BJP-led state government that has had a 27-year uninterrupted rule and hopes to override it through Hindutva,” he said. 

Also read: Ground Report: Once Fierce Opposition Figures, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore Have Lost Stature

“But what is truly worrying the BJP is AAP which it fears will cut away the traditional votes of BJP,” he said. 

AAP CM candidate Isudan Gadhvi, after casting his vote. @isudan_gadhvi

A number of observers in Gujarat believe that AAP will hurt the BJP more than the Congress. They reason that in the absence of a strong organisation and a formidable list of candidates at AAP, Congress will emerge as the only alternative for those who are looking for change. However, AAP’s role in amplifying the opposition rhetoric and fuelling the aspiration for a ‘change’ has been immense – a factor that may eventually help the Congress which has fielded candidates with their own support base. 

Who will AAP damage more – Congress or BJP – has been a consistent question in the state ever since the fledgling party pried open the conventional bi-polar polity. Siddiqui believes that those who vote for the Congress (believed to be a little over 30%) will continue to do so as they have voted for the party even during its worst times.

“There may not be an incremental vote for the Congress even in 2022 but the AAP’s appeal among the traditional BJP voters may help them gain a number of seats,” Siddiqui said. 

Also read: What Makes a Lifelong Farmers’ Activist Choose Electoral Politics?

He reasons that AAP gained ground in Gujarat because of its popularity in Hindu-dominated areas, especially where Patidars and BJP-voting Dalits, Adivasis, and OBCs are numerically strong.

AAP first shot to the limelight when it won 27 seats in Surat in municipal polls, especially in localities which are populated by Leuva Patels in the weaving business and diamond trade. Similarly, its appeal among a section of OBCs have increased because most AAP candidates have fielded candidates from hitherto under-represented backward caste groups like Charan, Bharwad, Rabari and so on. It has also announced Isudan Gadhvi, who also belongs to a non-dominant OBC group, as its chief ministerial candidate. 

Such a combination of factors have led analysts like Siddiqui to believe that AAP’s growth in Gujarat will only be at the cost of BJP, even if it hurts the Congress in a few seats. 

Women wait in a queue to cast their votes at a polling booth during the second and final phase of Gujarat Assembly elections, in Ahmedabad, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s all-out attack on Arvind Kejriwal and his party only strengthens the understanding. Several things point towards panic in the BJP house. Among them are Prime Minister Modi’s “revdi” jibe at AAP, the BJP’s IT cell-orchestrated campaign to project Kejriwal as “anti-Hindu” and, in fact, even as a Muslim through posters where he is shown in skull cap, attempts to stymie AAP’s campaign by targeting its leaders like Satyendar Jain and Manish Sisodia, and a concerted propaganda to sully the party’s claim of being a clean, incorruptible organisation.

Congress, on its part, has attempted to gain advantage of the new scenario. A senior Congress leader who is contesting from a constituency in the Saurashtra region told The Wire that its silent campaign was strategic.

“Any media attention that we receive has been negative. So we didn’t want that. We also refrained from holding big rallies and calling our national leadership as that would have only invited a controversy or the other,” he said, hinting at how the BJP electoral machinery spun Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s “Raavan” remark at the prime minister recently. 

“We did what we could do the best. Reach out to people as many times as possible,” he added.

December 8, the day when the results will be declared, will also decide the future of all the three parties in the fray – and whether Narendra Modi’s appeal still holds strong amidst widespread discontent in the state.