Remember Bipasha? No, not sultry actress Bipasha Basu but the underlying credo of bijli, paani and sadak which gained currency in the 2003 Madhya Pradesh elections — this after a decade of Congress rule under Digvijay Singh, ensuring his defeat. Actually, the BJP used this theme as its bulwark in the 2003 state elections — for the Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Delhi — as Uma Bharti, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh all swept into office promising development. It was a unique and gratifying change from the recent politics of polarisation and divisiveness that the BJP had been practicing at the time. Remember Godhra happened in 2002. The BJP chose to cut the umbilical cord to that type of politics by projecting development as its primary plank. Ironically, economics has never been an important issue in the Indian polity. But five years earlier, the same BJP had been torpedoed by the skyrocketing prices of onions.
North India can’t do without its onions and the Congress had made it its main poll plank. The BJP, then ruling at the Centre and in Delhi and Rajasthan, suffered a humiliating defeat. Strategists in the party quickly realised that the deep-set and old moorings of Hindutva had to be junked. The message was clear — people were consumed with improving their lives and moving up the food chain. The new India was aspirational, to say the least. It didn’t want to remain captive to old mores and mindsets. Ram Mandir and the Uniform Civil Code had to be ditched as basic issues related to ordinary people’s lives became ubiquitous. A new template was birthed and the BJP chose to go into the 2003 elections with development and governance as its twin poll-plank. It worked. Actually, onions have derailed other governments too in the past. Most notably, burgeoning onion prices contributed to the fall of a reasonably credible Janata Party government in 1980, forcing Indira Gandhi, who made a massive comeback after her dethroning and ignominious exit in 1977, to call it the onion election.
Gujarat 2017 has many lessons for both the BJP and the Congress. Many are predicated on economics. Yes, soft Hindutva on the part of Rahul Gandhi’s temple run and Hardik Patel’s grandstanding provided the ballast for a much better Congress performance. The temple run fetched the Congress 18 seats while Hardik’s bombast and belligerence helped win 23 Patidar seats. Remember, not since 1985 when it won 149 seats in the Assembly has the Congress done as well. Primarily, economic issues dominated the discourse in Gujarat. The GST was an incendiary issue and while the BJP smartly cauterised the running sore by changing policy, its impact has been far-reaching. Surat was an epicentre of the trader agitation just as Mehsana was ground zero for the Patidar movement. When the frenzy took over on GST, the BJP brought in the heavy artillery. Textiles minister Smriti Irani was sent to Surat to assuage the hurt of the textile trading community. Other ministers too were parachuted. In the end, policy prescriptions quelled what could have been a staggering reversal. Soon after the GST rollout on July 1, many traders’ organisations had organised protest rallies; one by textile traders in Surat was especially noteworthy. These traders, weavers and those connected with the embroidery sector, form the country’s largest man-made fabric hub in Surat. Malleability and ductility on the part of the ruling side initiated a mid-course correction.
On the backfoot, the BJP realised it needed to focus on its core constituency of traders and arrest the declining sentiment. Almost overnight, apprehending the hurt and angst, it reduced GST on yarn to 12 per cent from 18 per cent, increased basic customs duty by 25 per cent to curb the import of undervalued fabrics from China, and gave relief in filing of GST returns. The stratagem worked perfectly for in parallel, it cut tax rates on artificial filament yarn such as viscose and rayon, as well as yarn of manmade staple fibres for good measure. These were brought under the five per cent slab from the previous 12 per cent. The sting had been taken out of Rahul’s pincer. The results speak for themselves — the BJP, always strong in urban agglomerates in Gujarat, won 15 out of 16 seats in the Surat region and performed admirably in Vadodra and Ahmedabad too.
Conversely, the Congress also plugged into agrarian distress in the Saurashtra-Kutch area. With no redressal coming forth for harried cotton (kapas) farmers, Rahul scored over the BJP, that put in its worst performance in the region in recent elections. Of the 54 seats in contention, the BJP tally was down from 52 in 2014 to 23 in 2017. Saurashtra is the largest grower of cotton and groundnut (peanut is another crop here). The non-remunerative produce and the inadequate procurement process angered the kapas cultivators. They threw out the BJP from three districts (Morbi, Amreli and Gir-Somath) out of 11. Farmers in this water-scarce area cultivate a single crop of cotton and bank on timely procurement of the produce at a minimum support price. Though the state government had, in October, announced a bonus of `500 per quintal over and above the minimum support price of `4,020 per quintal, the amount was considered too little to recover even the input cost. The Congress tied into this emotive narrative — complete failure of the procurement machinery to reach out across the entire region forced growers to sell their produce at very low prices, causing deep resentment and annoyance. The BJP managed to fix what was broken with the textile trade but could not do the same with the harassed kapas kisans. It cost them dear.
While the BJP has traditionally been strong in urban areas, the Congress has its bastions in the rural belt. This divide was further accentuated with the BJP winning 33 out of 39 urban constituencies, the Congress only six; of the 45 “rurban” seats, the BJP won 26 and the Congress a respectable 18, but the tour de force came in purely rural seats. Out of 98 seats, the Congress won in spades, as many as 55 with its allies against the BJP’s 39. The UPA thrived with its welfare economics model, something Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to understand soon after the suit-boot ki sarkar jibe, when he began to veer left of centre.
Now, the two examples that I have given cut across the urban-rural faultlines for, while textiles is an urban phenomenon, kapas is clearly a rural case study. Going forward, economics and jobs will play a bigger role in Indian elections. Young India is driven by ambition, Generation X is impatient; it seeks jobs and employment and a better life.
In many ways, 2018 will be the year of reckoning for Prime Minister Narendra Modi known as “Vikas Purush”, his development model will be scrutinised. He has to start delivering on many of his promises. Young voters have already signalled their impatience in Gujarat; and more Assembly elections beckon — among them are Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (a constant in this narrative) and Chhattisgarh.
As India moves from one election to the other, Mr Modi remains the BJP’s only vote catcher as he tirelessly and indefatigably marches from one rally to another, conquering hearts and minds of the people; at the core of his demagoguery remains vikas. Will he be progressive or populist in the run-up to the Big One? As a templar of development, he has to push for higher growth through deeper reform, and only then will the dividend of employment come. While he will be focused on that, he has to deal with a rapidly growing farm crisis as despite a food glut, remunerative pricing is missing. The pricing erosion is driving the farmer to deeper indebtedness. Complex meets complicated, for this is the Rubik’s cube called India. Transpose the learning from the Gujarat test laboratory.