In 2019, Disenchantment with the BJP May Not be Limited to Gujarat

In the forthcoming general elections, the disenchantment with the Bharatiya Janata Party may not be limited to Gujarat. The state has experienced the hoax of the Gujarat model first-hand and may be the affective state in contiguous regions across states.

The dust has settled on the Gujarat election, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fallen woefully short of Amit Shah’s chest-thumping “150-plus seats” boast, sputtering and coming to a halt at 99. This seat tally was just seven over a simple majority, and looked more like a defeat than victory for the party in the state that is considered the laboratory of the potential Hindu rashtra. Pundits and the intelligentsia once chided Narendra Modi’s national ambitions, confident that India was not Gujarat. Instead, the Modi-led BJP has succeeded in reproducing the Gujarat model at a national level. In 2018, “India” mirrors Gujarat, with Hindu majoritarianism becoming commonsensical and brutal violence against religious minorities having become an everyday affair. Gujarat’s exclusionary growth is being replicated on a national scale, at an exponential pace. Income inequality in India is at its highest since 1922 (Chancel and Picketty 2017). India’s richest 1% holds 58% of its wealth (CreditSuisse 2017), and the country has experienced years of jobless growth since the Modi government was elected in 2014 (Venu 2017). 

However, the 2017 Gujarat assembly results also show that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) invariably encounters limits, and tends to do so rapidly. After coming to power at the centre for the first time in 1999, the NDA lost after just one term, while the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won successive elections in 2004 and 2009. Arguably, the UPA was better able to resolve the contradictions of pro-market growth by producing a Polanyian countermovement of social programmes and safety nets that blunted the effects of growing inequality for swathes of society. The BJP fails to produce “countermovements” (Polanyi 1957) because they run counter to its ideology, explicitly pro-rich, pro-corporate, and Brahminical. The party’s economic and social goals are two sides of the same coin, and envision an order that sediments inequalities based on capital, religion, and caste. 

The BJP’s impetus towards an unequal order tends to quickly trample on most groups in society, and creates potential for resistance from all but those at the apex of the socio-economic pyramid. The party’s policies at both the state level in Gujarat, and at the centre since 2014 shaped its apologetic performance in the 2017 Gujarat election. The Congress with allies won 80 seats, falling just 12 seats shy of a simple majority in the 182-seat house. It improved its vote share from 31% to 41%, aided by the Dalit agitation in Una, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) mobilisation, and the unrest of middle-caste peasant Patidars. The Congress won in “rural” constituencies, a moniker that conceals heterogeneous regions, including tribal, semi-arid, agrarian and small-town areas. While poll analysts have simplistically explained the Gujarat outcome as the BJP winning in urban and the Congress in rural Gujarat, the Congress also improved its vote share in urban areas (Desai 2017). These places were assumed to be the BJP’s strongholds nationwide. The marginalised social and economic groups in both rural and urban areas—including the working class and a section of the middle class—punished the BJP. The party’s anti-Muslim vitriol, so successful in the past, appeared canned to voters for the first time in two decades. For many groups, “teaching Muslims their place” became less compelling as their own place in the economic order rapidly eroded, and younger and newer leaders like Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor, and Hardik Patel, pointed this out. 

The BJP’s Policies and Growing Inequality in Gujarat

The 2017 verdict in Gujarat indicates that exclusionary growth has limits, and the electorate’s experience of ill-being, to which both the state government and the BJP-led government at the center have contributed, cannot be trumped by orchestrated perceptions of progress, and whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. It is worth repeating that Gujarat’s industrialisation dates to the state’s inception, and predates the BJP’s rise to power in the state by decades. Gujarat is a historically capital-friendly state that has consistently emphasised private property, free reign for business, and state investment in industrial development. This has concurrently produced one of the worst levels of environment pollution and lowest wage rates in the country. The wage rates come as a surprise to visitors from other states, which may not boast the same levels of industrial activity but pay their workers far higher wages. However, a model of evermore exclusionary growth becomes unsustainable when countermovements that buffer against its ill-effects are absent. 

Gujarat embarked on a particularly neo-liberal path under the rule of the BJP since 1995. Economic growth has been jobless for the past two decades (AhmedabadMirror 2016). Going beyond the pro-market reforms adopted by the national government since the 2000s, the Government of Gujarat has wooed large-scale firms with tax incentives; subsidies on capital, interest, and electricity; and the provision of water, nearly free land, and natural resources (Hirway 2017). This has meant the depletion of grazing lands, pastures and water for rural communities. Investment in the state has been capital-intensive and labour-displacing (UNDP 2004). Medium- and small-scale industries, which are the mainstays of relatively equitable economic distribution, have taken a beating in Gujarat. These include ceramics, auto parts, and engineering components. On the other hand, heavily automated, large-scale firms have received the largesse of tax exemptions (Hirway 2017). 

Neo-liberal reforms have been accompanied by deepening inequality. In agriculture, this has included declining investment in public irrigation, throttling rural credit, doing away with minimum support prices, and allowing unregulated price increases in input markets. In the social sector, there have been cutbacks in government employment, the hollowing out of public education and health, and incentivising private sector development in education. In urban areas, public spaces have been privatised, civic services devolved to private corporations, and “renewal” projects have driven the poor, religious minorities and lower castes to cities’ margins (Chatterjee 2009). The 2017 verdict in Gujarat is a reminder that the state is the Sangh Parivar’s laboratory in two senses—Hindu communalism and pro-rich growth. Rural poverty in Gujarat declined by 2.8% from 1993–2005 as against 8.5% for the country as a whole. Poverty in Gujarat’s tribal areas increased during the period (Hindu 2009). While the state ranked eighth in human development in 1983—a period incidentally of the Congress’s rule—it fell to 12th place in 2004, after 15 years of the BJP’s rule and a decade under Modi. In 2011, as Modi readied to go to the 2012 state polls, 44.6% of children below the age of five in Gujarat were malnourished (GOI 2011). Gujarat’s infant mortality rate ranked 18th among 29 Indian states in 2015 (RBI 2017). These numbers tell the story of a state government that has actively withdrawn resources from the less well-off, slashed public services that improve the collective good, and siphoned tax monies (including taxes forgone) and common property resources to the upper class and large-scale firms. 

The BJP’s Model of (non)Development: Caste, Indigeneity, and Region in Gujarat

The Patidar agitation was a response to the decline in returns from agriculture in the face of the rules of the game being skewed in favor of domestic and global corporate agrofood interests. Seeing their entrepreneurial efforts in the market sphere fail, the Patidars turned to the government sector and higher education as pathways to upward mobility, demanding reservations in both. In an environment of cutbacks in government employment and the rampant privatisation of education, this was untenable for the BJP. The Dalit agitation, triggered by the violence against Dalit youth in Una, Saurashtra by upper castes, demanded land for Dalits so that they could discontinue the dehumanising occupations forced upon them by a caste Hindu order. Land for landless Dalits was a no go for the Brahminical, pro-corporate BJP, whose Gujarat government under Modi boasted massive transfers of land at throwaway prices for ports, automobiles, and petrochemicals projects for India’s largest corporations. 

The Congress won in regions numerically dominated by marginalised social groups, including cultivator caste Kolis who are denoted OBCs, Adivasis and Dalits, who were joined in parts of rural Gujarat by middle peasant castes such as the Patidars. Many of these groups comprise the Congress’s once-victorious KHAM alliance of Kshatriyas (Rajputs, including Kolis who regard themselves as Rajputs), “Harijans” (Dalits), Adivasis, and Muslims. KHAM was not simply the suturing together of disparate groups, but rooted in the shared economic circumstances of these identities, as I learnt in the course of fieldwork in Gujarat. Marginalised social groups dominate the unirrigated, “tribal” and semi-arid districts of Gujarat that lie along a north-western to south-eastern arc in the state. These districts are hinterlands for natural resources, water, and cheap labour that are channelled to irrigated districts and urban centres. These “border” districts include Kutch, Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Dahod, Panchmahal, Vadodara, Narmada, Tapi, and The Dang. These regions are numerically dominated by Adivasis, who constitute 15% of Gujarat’s population, and other marginalised groups such as Kolis and Dalits. An elitist party, the BJP wins the least voter support from these regions. Dahod, where I have conducted long-term fieldwork, is a case in point, where the BJP won the 2007 election with the lowest margin in this district. The BJP government’s programmes, despite the penetration of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh into border districts and its anti-Muslim indoctrination and cultural programme of “Hinduising” Adivasis, Kolis and Dalits, have paid lip service to development. The Gujarat government raised its below poverty line (BPL) entitlement for food grains from 20 kilogram (kg) to 35 kg in 2008 only after a rap from the high court, and in 2013, the state had the highest rate of foodgrain diversion in the public distribution system (Rukmini 2013). The quality of public education has declined precipitously, and at 28:1, the teacher–student ratio is the highest in India (RBI 2017). 

Microcredit programmes in Gujarat have emphasised delivering large loans through which lending institutions can earn higher returns. In Dahod, out of a total of 1,939 self-help groups (SHGs) formed during 2002–07, only 26% qualified for major loans (DRDA 2007). In watershed development, the largest development program for semi-arid areas, the Gujarat government shifted from water provision for public needs to investing in irrigation for wealthier farmers who already owned deep wells. In a circular to district officers, the state’s Department of Rural Development emphasised terminating tank-deepening which generates water for subsistence needs and massive wage-employment: “Physical works in public lands such as digging a new tank, strengthening the embankments of a tank, or deepening an existing tank may not be attempted …” (GOG 2005).

The staff member of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Devgadh Baria remarked, 

The DRDA has done away with earthen bunds … with whichever works generate more employment, are labour-intensive, and involve earthwork … The DRDA’s unwritten rule … is to build check dams. Every time it releases an installment of monies, it tells us “Build a check dam …” 

Fieldwork in Mahipura village, combining household surveys, panchayat records and watershed files revealed that 80% of a dam’s funds are channelled to cement manufacturers and retail stores; contractors who rent out concrete mixers and water tanks; and tractor owners who transport materials from stores to dam sites. Labourers receive only 20% of the outlay on a dam. In effect as well, dams channel water to owners of deep wells with irrigation motors that can lift dam-water with pipes and channel it to their fields (Daftary 2014). The BJP’s model of development even in marginalised districts has consisted of buttressing the well-endowed, and channelling shared resources upward to them, so that a significant share of rural contractors and political leaders are aligned with the party.

Electoral Politics and a Knowing Electorate

Rural voters share an intimate relationship with the state and political parties, because their marginality renders them more dependent on the state to secure public goods, as well as more vulnerable to resource appropriation by the state. Voters are aware of how state actions related to land, water, agriculture, natural resources, food, health and education directly affect their well-being and ill-being. The memory of the electorate is long and deep, and the BJP government in Gujarat has built two decades’ worth of memories of unequal and unjust development. In 2006–07, the Gujarat government launched two generous schemes—Sakhi, a microcredit scheme, and Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana, which delivered loan-buffaloes to Adivasis who constitute 72% of Dahod’s population (GOI 2001). Sakhi was grossly underfunded, and after just three months, Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana was quietly withdrawn due to lack of funds. But the scheme’s glitzy advertisements remained on Dahod town’s arterial thoroughfare Station Road, impressing Modi’s exemplary development credentials upon the passing journalist. But not upon the rural denizen, who knew better. At the national level, the pattern is repeated with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, with glitzy television, billboard and newspaper ads; and 60% of toilets built under the scheme being without water.

Rural voters are also familiar with the BJP’s election stratagems—Modi’s empty bombast at election rallies of having spent monies on tribal regions, the BJP’s clientelist development that channels resources to the wealthiest political brokers in rural areas, the hollowing out of development from the mid-1990s onwards, and deeply unequal growth during the BJP’s rule at the centre since 2014. At a public meeting in the lead-up to the 2007 state election, at a rally in Limkheda block on 10 August, Jaswantsinh Bhabhor—then a member of the Legislative Assembly from the Randhikpur and now the Minister of State for Tribal Affairs—made opening remarks and declared that he had spent `12,000 crore regenerating Dahod’s forests. 

Bhabhor then made way for Modi, who asserted, “In just five years, I have spent ₹6,200 crore on Gujarat’s tribal districts, and … have resolved to spend ₹15,000 crore more.” At this, one woman in the audience remarked to another, “We didn’t see any of that money come to the villages, did we?” When my Koli friends and I were returning to Mahipura, one made a droll face and said, “All the money that Modi talked about—where did it go?” A police superintendent from Godhra who was involved in Modi’s security arrangements for the election rallies said, “It’s more important to show that work has been done than to do it. All of Modi’s public addresses in the past two years are exercises in creating his image in the public mind.” This image is beginning to crack. The BJP’s national policies of demonetization, and goods and service tax (GST), and the growing perception in the public sphere of the party’s highest leadership being an instrument of aggrandisement for the largest corporations, are creating more vocal and restive disenchantment with the party. In 2017 in Gujarat, reports trickled in of half-empty venues at Modi’s addresses and people leaving as he began his speech (Nair 2017). Empty claims can only go so far.

Modi’s appetite for grandeur urges him to make his way into the Guinness World Records. We witnessed the convoluted record of the-largest-number-of-people-doing-yoga-simultaneously-in-one-spot on International Yoga Day in 2015, and in 2016, 900-persons-with-disabilities-lighting-oil-lamps-simultaneously in an event co-organised by the Government of India (Swatman 2016). Significant public monies are expended in these spectacles of empty image-building. During his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, Modi’s itch to set a record in tree plantation led to orders to staff of all rural development programmes to drop their work and plant saplings across village lands. As saplings were hurriedly planted in seasons unsuited for plantation (afforestation is best undertaken in winter), other programmes’ implementation suffered, workers fumed silently, and over subsequent weeks, the saplings withered and died. The time and effort of government agencies’ staff, frontline workers, contracted employees, and rural communities; as well as rural lands, were appropriated for personal record-setting. Modi’s ego and appetite for public glorification expropriates resources meant for development and social service provision. 

The Gujarat model has been replicated at the centre in the continuation of Modi’s projects of record-setting for personal aggrandisement since 2014. Ironically, during this period, the state government withdrew the Tribal Welfare Scheme, mandated for development and service delivery for Adivasi-dominated areas. To make up for the lack of delivery on many fronts, Modi used campaign meetings in 2007, which was carefully labelled “public meetings” rather than election speeches, to channel cash-patronage directly to sarpanches. At the “girl child protection” meeting in Limkheda, ₹17,00,000 was awarded to female students for exemplary performance in the 10th and 12th Board exams, and to select women’s SHGs for their entrepreneurship. A close look at award recipients revealed that most were family members or close kin of sarpanches and local BJP leaders. While the Congress is regarded as the party of patronage politics and the BJP as a rank-and-file party, clientelist politics is a significant feature of the BJP as well. 

Modi inflicted a blitzkrieg of election meetings on Dahod for the 2007 state election, holding four meetings in January, July, and twice in August. The Congress held just two, both advertised leanly, the first through the simple slogan “Chalo Baria!” painted in blue on whitewashed walls in Dahod. Each meeting of the Congress drew bigger crowds than the BJP’s, despite Modi ordering district- and block-level bureaucrats to marshal government contractors’ vehicles to bring villagers to his meetings; and the Congress lacking this clout in a state where it was out of power. A senior block-level bureaucrat in Dahod explained why.

“Ask about the Congress’s work in the tribal belt and people will recognise it. The BJP can’t command the same numbers in a district-wide rally even if it calls Atal Behari Vajpayee.” 

Sonia Gandhi addressed her first public meeting in Baria on 21 January 2007, 10 months before the assembly election, and the second at Chhaparwad in November 2007, just weeks before the election. She emphasised the Congress’s pro-poor credentials by citing the delivery of the (then) National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), among other schemes, and making barbed remarks about the crony capitalism that had already grown to outsize proportions in Gujarat. The electorate of eastern Gujarat—comprising Dahod, Panchmahal and Baroda districts—rightly perceived the BJP as an elitist party that explicitly stands for “upper” castes and the wealthy. Like in 2007 and 2012, the BJP secured the lowest votes from regions inhabited by marginalised social groups. But unlike 2007 and 2012, these groups handed victories to the Congress in 2017, joined by relatively better-off groups that have also seen their fortunes diminish in the wake of market-driven, pro-capital reforms. The year 2017 brought the BJP on the brink of defeat in its laboratory. The party’s victory margins against the Congress in at least 10 seats ranged from just 250 to 900 votes (Desai 2017), and the party is likely grateful to its “committed” booth-level cadres for the win. 

Conclusions

The seeds of the 2017 outcome in Gujarat were sown in 2007, indeed, even before that. The BJP’s policies in both Gujarat and at the national level have played a role in turning a significant section of Gujarat’s electorate—one loyal to the party and Modi—away from the BJP. The economic circumstances and social identities of the inhabitants of “tribal,” semi-arid, rural and small-town Gujarat are akin to those in neighbouring states in “tribal” western India—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. In the national election in 2019, disenchantment with the BJP may not be limited to Gujarat, which has experienced the hoax that the Gujarat model first-hand, but be the affective state in contiguous regions across states, indeed, nationally, that will have experienced the chimera that is the replication of the Gujarat model countrywide. Whether the outcome in 2019 is a narrow victory for the BJP like in Gujarat, or a defeat, is contingent on multiple forces in society, politics, and the economy; and their response to the social problems of caste, communalism, and market-driven development. 

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