DISEQUILIBRIUM: Act on Gujarat learnings

You remember Bipasha? No, not the sultry actress Bipasha Basu, now happily married but the underlying credo of bijli, pani and sadak which gained currency in the MP elections of 2003 in particular, this came after a decadal rule of Congress under Digvijay Singh ensuring his defeat at the hustings. 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 had 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 Indian polity. But five years earlier, the same BJP had been torpedoed by the sky-rocketing prices of onions.

North India cannot do without its onions and the Congress made it its main poll platform. The BJP, then ruling at the Centre and in Delhi and Rajasthan, suffered a humiliating defeat. Strategists in the party realised in double quick time that the deep set and old moorings of Hindutva had to be junked. The message was clear, people were consumed with improving their lives, moving up the food chain, for the new India was aspirational, it did not want to remain captive to old mores and mindsets. Ram mandir and uniform civil code had to be ditched, instead basic issues related to common people's lives were becoming ubiqutous.  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 like clockwork. 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 1981 forcing Indira Gandhi, who made a massive comeback after her dethroning and ignominious exit in 1977, to call it the Onion election.

Gujarat of 2017 has many lessons for the BJP and 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. Temple run fetched Congress 18 seats while Hardik’s bombast and belligerence helped win 23 Patidar seats. Remember that 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. Gabbar Singh Tax or 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 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. Textile 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 held humongous 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. The fusillade of pique evident. Malleability and ductility on the part of the ruling dispensation sensing the raging firestorm initiated a mid course correction.

BJP on the backfoot realised that 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 man made staple fibres for good measure. These were brought under the 5 per  cent slab from the previous 12 per cent. The sting had been taken out of Rahul’s pincer. The results speak for themselves — BJP always strong in urban agglomerates in Gujarat won 15 out of 16 seats in Surat region and performed admirably in Vadodra and Ahmedabad too.   

Conversely, the Congress also plugged into the agrarian distress in the Saurashtra-Kutch area. With no redressal coming forth for harried cotton (kapas) farmers, Rahul scored over the BJP which put in its worst performance in the region in recent elections. Of the 54 seats in contention, the BJP tally was down from 35 in 2012, 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. Kisans in this water-paucity area in the main 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 Rs 500 per quintal over and above the minimum support price of Rs 4,020 per quintal, the amount was considered too little to recover even input cost. 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. BJP managed to fix what was broken with the textile trade but could not do the same with the harrassed kapas kisans. And it cost them. While the BJP has traditionally been strong in urban centric areas, the Congress has its bastions in rural areas. This divide was further accentuated with the BJP winning 33 out of 39 urban constituencies, Congress only six; of the 45 Rurban seats, BJP won 26 and Congress a respectable 18, but the tour de force came in the purely rural seats.  Of 98 such seats, Congress won in spades, as many as 55 with its allies against the BJP’s 39. UPA thrived with its welfare economics model, something that PM Modi was quick to understand soon after the suit boot ki sarkar jibe when he veered left of centre.

Now the two examples that I have given cut across the urban-rural fault lines, for while textiles was an urban phenomenon, kapas was 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 2003, Bipasa Basu was the flavour of B Town with Pooja Bhatt’s erotic hit thriller Jism — where she played the role of seductive, ambitious wife of a millionaire who indulges in an extramarital affair with an alcoholic lawyer and plots to kill her hubby. Ergo — Bipasa — a brand new word entered India’s political lexicon. In many ways 2018 will be the year of reckoning for PM Modi known as vikas purush, his development model will come under stress and scrutiny. He has to start delivering on many of his promises, none more than the solving the employment conundrum, for the conveyor belt of graduates want to make their tryst with jobs.Young voters have already signalled their impatience in Gujarat; and more assembly elections beckon. Among them Karnataka, Rajasthan, the same Madhya Pradesh (a constant in this narrative) and Chattisgarh.

As India lurches from election to election and the PM himself remains the BJP’s only vote catcher as he tirelessly and indefatigably marches from one rally to another, conquering hearts and minds of the hoi polloi, 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 learnings from Gujarat test laboratory.


Sandeep Bamzai