Rahul propagating ‘grand stupid thought’ on GST, says Modi

Elections are like a game of ‘teen patti’, Atal Bihari Vajpayee once told me, placing three fingers of his right-hand face down on the palm of his left hand. Till such time someone calls ‘show’, nobody knows who’s going to win the game, he added, turning his three fingers up. This was during the 1999 Lok Sabha election necessitated by Jayalalithaa withdrawing her support to the BJP.

The NDA secured a majority in that election and Vajpayee remained Prime Minister. His soaring popularity won the day for the BJP. Yet five years later, when everybody was talking about a certain ‘feel good factor’ pervading all facets of life and nobody came remotely close to Vajpayee’s towering public image, the BJP lost the 2004 election. For the next decade, the party was relegated to the Opposition benches.

Then came the 2014 election and Narendra Modi led the BJP to a spectacular triumph. True, people had anticipated the BJP’s return to power but none, including experienced pollsters, had accurately predicted the scale of victory. All calculations, analyses and projections by psephologists and political pundits were laid to rest in the summer of that year of disruption.

While the wise dithered, the uncertainties of electoral outcomes between 2004 and 2014 did not quite stop the usual suspects from writing off Modi in two successive Assembly elections in Gujarat — first in 2007 and then in 2012. On both occasions, exaggerated reportage suggested the rise of the Congress and the fall of the BJP and Modi. On both occasions Modi proved the soothsayers wrong, sweeping the polls with decisive victories.

But that has not deterred people from predicting the BJP’s defeat, or at best, victory with a narrow margin, in this December’s election. Either way, it would be a blow to Modi — if the BJP were to lose the election, it would delegitimise his right to stay in office; if it were to secure a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds majority with which it had won between 2002 and 2012, it would hobble him politically both within and outside his party and the Government.

Hence we have seen a near re-run of the stories predicting doom and gloom for the BJP and Modi that have long lost their novelty. Only the name and face of the challenger have changed: it was Sonia Gandhi earlier, it is Rahul Gandhi now. What has also changed is the line of attack: it was secularism in danger earlier, it is the economy in danger now.

Having milked the tragic consequences of the burning of coach S-7 of Sabarmati Express by a Muslim mob at Godhra to the extent possible, and with the ‘secular card’ failing to fetch even diminishing electoral returns, most recently in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has turned to highlighting economic concerns. By playing up angst associated with demonetisation and GST, it is trying to engineer a revolt among BJP’s traditional supporters.

Simultaneously, the Congress is seeking to consolidate caste and community votes in its favour with the help of three admittedly popular young leaders — Hardik Patel who is demanding reservation for Patidars, Alpesh Thakor who wants more entitlements for OBCs, and Jignesh Mevani who sees himself as Gujarat’s Mayawati. But fantasising about a Patidar-OBC-Scheduled Castes alliance is one thing, forging it is quite another. Fusing that alliance with Muslims is entirely different.

Which makes the Gujarat election like any other we have seen in recent months: its outcome will be decided by ‘X’ factors that can be distilled into questions. Will Patidars vote en bloc or will the vote be split? If it is split, what proportion of that vote will go to the Congress? Will Alpesh Thakor be able to resolve inherent contradictions in OBCs sharing their quota of jobs with Patidars? Will Scheduled Castes back the Congress to the last voter?

On the other side of the battlefield, the BJP too is grappling with its own set of ‘X’ factors. Can more than two decades of anti-incumbency be overcome? Will tribals swing the vote in areas where there is an erosion of traditional support? Will development fetch support or will communal polarisation decide victory? Will disquiet among traders over demonetisation and GST hold sway or will they think better of dumping the party they have always supported? Will party president Amit Shah’s awesome organisational work deliver dividends?

The biggest ‘X’ factor, of course, is Modi, the humble Gujarati who rose to become Chief Minister and is now the Prime Minister. He began his campaign on Monday and it was evident that he remains the BJP’s winning card. It was quintessential Modi — combative and scathing, playing on popular sentiments at several levels and striking a chord with the masses effortlessly. Gujarat, he said, “is my atma while India is my ‘paramatma’.

But will Modi’s mojo help paper over the cracks that are inevitable after a party has been in power long enough for young voters not to remember or recall what it was like 22 years ago when Gujarat would hit the headlines only for riots? This ‘X’ factor must remain in the realm of speculation.