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THE longer-term ramifications of the recently concluded elections to the Gujarat assembly, arguably one of the hardest fought and most acrimonious contests in recent times, are likely to haunt our democracy for a long time. Elections, once valorized as a celebration are today no-holds-barred gladiatorial contests, with contestants willing to use all weapons in their armoury without any consideration for conventional restraints in order to ensure victory. This veritable collapse of democracy into elections can only dampen efforts towards evolving a more democratic civic and political culture.

Barely a few months back, the Gujarat elections were seen as a no-contest, a done deal. Not only had the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party been ruling for over two decades, relegating the opposition Congress to a faint memory, the steady string of victories notched up by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine post-2014 had helped create an air of inevitability.

Yet, much to everyone’s surprise, and the BJPs dismay, it soon became clear that the incumbent party had a battle on its hand. The signals were apparent. Ever since Narendra Modi shifted base to Delhi, the party has struggled to put in place a credible successor in Gandhinagar, with neither Anandiben Patel nor Vijay Rupani generating the needed confidence. More disturbingly, the much touted Gujarat model, overly reliant on attracting corporate investment at considerable cost to the state exchequer, had made a mess of the state finances, leaving little surplus for infrastructure maintenance and expansion or indeed, any social sector schemes. Worse, the state leadership failed to address the growing crisis in agriculture, be it cotton or groundnut, and ignore the distress of farmers trapped in a high cost, low return trap as prices of different commodities sharply declined.

The BJP regime, particularly under Modi, had never expressed any sympathy for the smaller rural communities of pastoralists, fisher folk, artisans, marginal farmers and petty tradespersons. Rather, many of these groups saw a state supported expropriation of their resources, particularly the commons, on which they relied for survival, and their transfer to corporates. To their ranks were now added substantial sections of farmers and the youth angry about a lack of jobs despite substantial personal expenditure in private education. The result – Gujarat has over the last few years witnessed escalating unrest and protest, a situation further exacerbated by the ill-thought through move of demonetization, followed soon thereafter by a badly conceptualized and worse implemented GST regime.

More than the BJP it was the Congress which read the shifting winds better. Rahul Gandhi, long written off as a ‘Pappu’, displayed unusual energy and resolve. He helped stitch together an understanding with the newly emerging youth/community leaders – Hardik Patel spearheading the Patidar agitation, Jignesh Megvani channelizing Dalit protest and Alpesh Thakor, an OBC leader – and addressed scores of meetings of disaffected peoples across the state, continually foregrounding questions of livelihoods and vikas. By helping revitalize a near moribund party organization and making innovative use of social media, he not only helped alter earlier perceptions about his political abilities but more important, dim the aura around Modi. Suddenly after decades, the state seemed to have shrugged off the pall of fear and apathy, and found a new voice, adding to questioning and dissent. Regrettably, his campaign, which involved a flurry of temple hopping, also consciously avoided any reference to the concerns of the ghettoized Muslim community. Together the strategic impulse of the two parties helped ensure that the battleground was cast in Hindu, not secular, terms.

As successive opinion polls indicated that the elections were closer than anticipated, the BJP leadership panicked. And electioneering suddenly saw a new low as the Modi-Shah combine used every trick to undermine the challenge. There has never been any doubt of the BJPs Hindutva agenda, or its willingness to disregard facts and conventions to polarize the electorate by pandering to its deep prejudices, particularly about the Muslim community, to consolidate its voter base.

While this is par for course, less expected and more shocking were the speeches of the prime minister, going as far as to ‘accuse’ former constitutional personages of conspiring with Pakistan to engineer a BJP defeat. This reveals not only his insecurity as a person but worse, a willingness to breach all boundaries of convention and decency. Narendra Modi may well have reaffirmed his reputation as an indefatigable campaigner but, in mimicking a Donald Trump, he has narrowed the distance between himself and the loony Hindu right fringe, thereby demeaning the sanctity of his office and damaging our democracy. The Modi-BJP victory in Gujarat, if it can be called that, is pyrrhic. It does nobody any credit.

Harsh Sethi

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