Janus Shut The Door

Only one voice in Gujarat, said the visiting prince. How wrong he was.

One of the most interesting thought experiments one can perform on the Gujarat elections is to travel in and out of the state, listening to the perceptions on its outcome. The pendulum swing of opinion  going from the outside to the inside creates two oddly contrary views. The difference is not about the eventual victor (and, really, few were in doubt about who that was to be), but about the very nature of politics itself. And therein lies the social construction of the Modi victory: a win of two different orders and over two different levels.

It is the outside view of Modi’s politics that is flatter, almost homogeneous. It presents a pre-emptive view of politics: Modi as future PM. The outside view can be dubbed the politics of default. Modi had proclaimed victory beforehand of course, walking around like an ordained chieftain, a politician mentally assured of the result before the outcome was out. As if the question was not whether he will be prime minister, but when. The outside view sees Modi’s victory not as the result of an election with a fine-grained dynamics, but as vindication of a referendum on development—followed by the deserved acclamation. Mr Public Policy is on the way to being PM.

The inside view is the earthworm’s view. It smells of locality, soil, of internal doubt and dissent. Walking the streets of Ahmedabad, talking to people, one sensed—and senses still—a different ambience. People talked of specific issues. For instance, they were outspoken about the BRTS transport scheme or the project of riverside improvement. There was a sense that development, in the abstract, is one world and that concrete cases of development needed a detailed ethnography. A rickshaw puller complained that BRTS has created a multitude of minute displacements. Another thought the toll tax works against the poor. There was a sense that Modi’s vibrant Gujarat is a package that exists in the PRO’s mind. The people ask, “Development is okay, but what about the drought in Saurashtra?”

The contrast between the two images raises questions. Does the media write the history only through the lens of its winners or should the texture, taste, vibrancy, maybe even the surprises of the contest be looked at? The Congress, which has an outside view of politics, seemed to have given up as a party. Its local chiefs functioned in much the same way, content simply to sit back and register the presence of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress state unit behaves as if history begins when the dynasty enters Gujarat. Oddly, it isn’t the Congress entity that is the Opposition, but a rag-tag bunch of dissenters. The tragedy was that their complaints, doubts and critiques had not been politically aggregated. The party had failed in its minimum logic of politic duty. In the run-up to the election, what the Opposition failed to achieve, the dissenters, lobbies and ordinary people had signalled. The boat yatras, a battle of local people objecting to the hypothecation of the coastline to the corporations; the Kalsarian battle against the Nirma plant, the diamond lobbies’ unease with Modi, the Leuva Patel disgruntlement with politics—all highlighted it. And still, the Congress was a missing voice in Gujarat politics.

And there are the fears, under-articulated ones, that did not find resonance in electoral politics. The everyday fear of urbanisation. The development model might be hailed by the middle class, but even many city-dwellers feel the urbanisation programmes have shortchanged them. The riverside project has sanitised the river banks by refusing people living near the river access to it. There is the uneasy sense that urbanisation is a process of leasing land to corporations in the name of the middle class. These fears of the civics of the new urbanisation raises bigger fears of the fate of pastoral and nomadic groups.

This election had a different tenor. If the 2002 election was anchored on communal politics, the one after on a hybrid of communalism and development, this election by centering on Modi, the man and his achievements, depoliticised local-level issues, problems and protests, all of which would have added sparkle, diversity and perhaps even surprise. Odder still, though, was that the 2002 riots did not figure centrally. It was almost as if politics at the local level had been paused, to play out the bigger epic drama of Modi and his future. The 70 per cent turnout, almost festival-like, seemed to signal that these wider issues had been touched only perfunctorily—though the final tally suggests the heterogeneity of voices on the ground did find a vague articulation. There was always a sense that this election would be a split-level one, perceived through different scripts. In a way, that has come to pass.


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