Gujaratis have a name for leaders whose best days are behind them: ‘Futeli banduk’ (guns already fired).
Four such once-big guns have lined up to create trouble for Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The men comprise two former BJP chief ministers, Suresh Mehta and Keshubhai Patel, one former BJP home minister, Gordhan Jhadafiya, and the BJP’s undefeated six-term MP from Surat, Kashiram Rana. These days, Rana sits at home because he wasn’t given a ticket by Modi to contest, despite his record. The four men want a return to their days of glory, denied to them by Modi who has taken away their influence in the Gujarat BJP. They are now threatening to defeat him when the state votes later this year.
The question is: will these guns fire? The answer is: no. On their own they’re lacking in capacity. They tried the same thing in the last elections when they backed some rebel candidates. But they failed to affect Modi’s vote.
The reason is that Modi has dismantled the old BJP in Gujarat and built a structure that is loyal to him personally. So total is his control that every single city’s leadership owes its rise to him. Keshubhai, Mehta and a third former BJP man Shankarsinh Vaghela were all chief ministers at a time when the party contained many leaders. Now there is only one.
Unhappily for the old men, the voters have still remained with the BJP because in India, castes vote as a block. The BJP is kept in power in Gujarat through the votes of the state’s biggest and most powerful community, the peasant Patels, who are supporters of Hindutva.
This is where the Congress has the opportunity to create some mischief. Two of the rebels — Keshubhai and Jhadafiya — are Patels and might be able to pull away enough votes from the community for the contest to be closer than it has been. As I said, they’ve tried this before and failed. The reason is that being out of power for ten years has depleted their resources. A little help from the Congress on this count might make them more effective than they are now. Congress should provide the ammunition for these spent guns. And by that is meant cash. More than half the money a candidate spends on elections in India is directly paid as inducement to voters (cash trumps caste).
This is an opportunistic thing to propose, but politics is allowed to be unprincipled in India and has always been. Already the Congress’ biggest Gujarat leader is a turncoat RSS man. This is former chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, who left the BJP after losing the chief minister’s job to Keshubhai.
There is no escaping it: parties must accept how Indians insist on voting. What is important, if one insists on being principled, is following a good policy once these parties come to power.
Another place the Congress should have been more pragmatic in, and, in fact, still can be, is Andhra Pradesh. There, a chief minister’s son, Jaganmohan Reddy, was not crowned after his father died because he’s not seen as being clean enough. He left the party, taking the entire caste of Reddys with him as recent by-elections have shown. There’s little gain and complete loss in the Congress trying to resist the pattern of Indian voting because of its principles.
Gujarat is a two-party state and the contest has always been between the BJP and the Congress, with a few independents. The BJP has a little over 45 per cent of the vote locked. This leaves Congress with little space in which to operate. The rebels are spent, but experienced. Kashiram has been winning elections ever since Modi was wearing shorts (which, as a swayamsevak, I imagine he would have been wearing even in his 40s).
The sorry truth is that these old men still want power. But it’s also true that they are seething for revenge. Congress should give it to them.