In the next 10 days, Gujarat will go to polls, ostensibly to elect a legislative Assembly, but in reality to put a stamp of approval on its chief minister for over a decade, Narendra Modi. The only suspense is whether it does so with absolute conviction, that is, with a clear majority of votes cast, or through a plurality. The chances of the former outcome seem better than the latter right now. In either event, the incidental result will be the otherwise beleaguered Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holding on to its strongest citadel.
To be sure, predicting election results in a democracy is an exercise fraught with peril. During the American presidential election in November 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune, to its everlasting chagrin and immense delight of President Harry Truman who actually won, splashed on its front page the news of the victory of the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. Closer home and to our times, most observers had forecast a victory for the National Democratic Alliance in 2004. So it is possible that two weeks from now, this columnist will have egg on his face. In such an event, he will be in the august company of almost all pollsters and commentators.
Some major departures from the recent electoral history of the state deserve mention. In the aftermath of the 2002 carnage and the vicious name calling during the 2007 campaign, most observers believed that Gujarat’s ruling party would face a tough time at the hustings and could possibly eke out only a narrow win. Mr Modi led his party to win 126 and 117 seats in a House of 182 in 2002 and 2007, respectively.
The 2007 campaign saw the presence of strong leaders and over-the-top rhetoric on both sides. Many believe that the “maut ka saudagar” epithet hurled by Mrs Sonia Gandhi at the Chief Minister actually boomeranged on the Congress. The slightly lower margin of the BJP victory ironically had the opposite effect, that of sinking the morale of the Congress and boosting Mr Modi’s confidence. He has not come down from that rarefied perch in the last five years.
Despite its seemingly strong campaign in the media, the Congress appears to be resigned to another humiliating defeat at the hands of its number one nemesis. Unlike in 2007, the Gandhis have not made any significant appearance in the state, nor have any of its other, somewhat lesser luminaries. The BJP campaign is entirely Modi-centric and driven by, you guessed it, Mr Modi himself. So complete is his confidence in his own personal appeal that a small fortune is invested in the transmission of three-dimensional holographic images of the leader, allowing him to address many meetings simultaneously, 52 at the last count, across the state.
It is another matter altogether that these meetings and loud messages popping up all the time on most websites (including on the not-so-savoury ones, I am told), are probably not needed. The voters most likely see no reason to make a fresh choice.
This year’s Nobel laureates in economics, Lloyd Shapiro and Alvin Roth, explain why in their elegant mating and team-formation theories. Put simply, they say that a pairing is stable if neither partner has an incentive to seek alternative alliances. The average Gujarati believes that s/he has never had it so good as in the last 10 years or so. Despite some critics making a valid claim that the actual situation in the state is not as impressive as Mr Modi’s much publicised claims, there is no gainsaying that Gujarat has been among the frontline states on most indicators of development.
The vigorous growth of the state in the first decade of this century prompted economist Arvind Subramanian to call Gujarat “India’s China in growth terms”. That is not the egalitarian Scandinavia or plush Switzerland, but it is not unimpressive either. In a recently released book, economist Bibek Debroy compares various aspects of the Gujarat model with the rest of the country. He concludes that even as the positive legacy of previous governments and the Gujarati entrepreneurship are acknowledged to be contributory factors, denying the role the present political leadership has played in seeing through various achievements would “violate the facts and be dishonest”. Neither of the distinguished scholars can be termed Modi apologists or BJP partisans.
The aam aadmi and aurat in Gujarat does not need such disquisitions to be convinced. The prosperity of the state is evident even in these days of stubborn economic downturn. Power is available almost everywhere practically without interruption. While the Narmada waters do not yet reach the remotest corners of the state, Gujarat has not suffered badly this year despite a substantial shortfall of rain. Roads are clearly better in the state than elsewhere. Mr Modi claims the credit personally for all this and most people are more than willing to let him have it.
The mood in Gujarat now is that the BJP is the natural party of governance and the Congress, which ruled the state for most of the first three decades (and once boasted a 145-seat majority in the state Assembly), is a pale shadow of itself and on the path to self-destruction. The BJP has been in power since 1995 except for an year and younger voters consider Congress rule as a myth from the past.
The likely outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections, coupled with the fact that Mr Modi himself no longer demonises any community and seems to enjoy gradual acceptance of some Muslims, will doubtless lead to further exhortations that we must now put the events of 2002 behind us and move on. Doing so, however, would amount to treating the electoral victory of a leader as endorsement of his politics, and a certain model of development as the criterion of the social good. In a democratic set-up, election is a necessary instrument to choose rulers, but it cannot always provide the roadmap to a good society. That needs a moral compass, which is prominent by its absence in the current campaign.
The writer taught at IIM Ahmedabad and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. He writes on economic and policy issues.