A Tale of Two Bridges
The recently held elections in Gujarat were a story of Congress debacle amidst a tale of two bridges. The story of two bridges in Gujarat needs highlighting as it shows that nothing mattered to the electorate and all the issues stood forgotten. It is also important because, apart from political allegations of all sorts and chest thumping by the political foes, elections are also about hopes, aspirations, desires and debates around various things that people want.
The first of the two bridges being talked about over here is the ancient cable bridge at Morbi that had collapsed in October, reportedly killing 135 people. The episode had led to a furore that died much ahead of the day of the polling and the bridge failed to become an election issue.
The second bridge is the Atal footbridge on Sabarmati river, around which also there was a lot of noise in August over ticketing of pedestrians desiring to walk on this bridge. This noise also died by the time polling was held and Prime Minister Narendra Modi managed to build a narrative around himself, and lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an emphatic win sending down the message that it was only him that mattered.
In the process, the BJP's traditional rival the Congress party received the worst drubbing ever since the state came into existence as its tally nosedived across the zones of Saurashtra-Kutch, North, Central and South Gujarat. A major contributor in this process was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that not only announced its arrival on the political turf of the state by winning five seats but also registered a polling percentage of around 13%.
Four of the five seats won by this rookie force are in Saurashtra which was a Congress bastion till the 2017 elections, while one victory came on a tribal seat in South Gujarat.
The situation for the Congress is so pitiable that it has lost even the status of having a leader of Opposition since the seats won by it are less than ten percent of the total.
The party managed to win only 17 of the 182 seats in the state. This has happened for the first time since Gujarat came into its own in 1960. There being no leader of opposition in a state is surely not a good sign for Indian democracy, as is being felt by political observers.
The Leader of Opposition enjoys the rank of a Cabinet Minister and this time around the Congress is in no position to stake claim for the post. The AAP with just five seats in its kitty is also nowhere near the position, despite having garnered a 13 per cent vote share. Ironically, 128 AAP candidates lost their deposits. This again is something of interest for those keen on studying election statistics.
In the case of the Congress candidates, the number that lost their deposits stood at 41. An interesting addition to the list of those losing their deposits was Madhu Shrivastava, a BJP rebel, who had earlier won on six occasions from Waghodiya seat in Vadodara.
The Congress has been left to lick its wounds as result interpretations reported point out that AAP played a spoiler in triangular contests on several seats. What has also left many observers baffled is the exceptionally high number of votes AAP managed on some of the tribal seats in districts like Chhota Udepur and Dahod in central Gujarat along with Narmada and Tapi in south Gujarat.
The reason one can assume for this tribal support for the new entrant was the lure of promises around power, education and health. Interactions with the people in the tribal seat of Morva Hadaf by this reporter had pointed towards people's concerns on these issues along with employment.
Reports stated that in around 50 seats that include those reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST)and also in Saurashtra, there was a keen triangular contest where the saffron force benefited on account of the splitting of votes between the Congress and the AAP.
The BJP winning 23 of the 27 tribal seats reserved for the STs has come as a major surprise. Sources on the ground say that even the BJP supporters and workers are baffled at the astonishing high number of the seats the party has won in these polls.
But at the same time the fourth player All India Majlis-E_Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) that had put up candidates on 13 Muslim dominated seats in the state proved to be a non-starter with the minority community rejecting it outright. A large number of people from the community with whom this reporter interacted referred to AIMIM as 'Lila Kamal' (Green Lotus with lotus being the poll symbol of the BJP).
Community leaders said that a large number of people, particularly the youth had been earlier drawn to the AIMIM when the party had announced its entry in the state. "They had mainly seen it as a force that would give a voice to the community that has been pushed to the margins of state polity for decades now. The community has been voting for the Congress at large but the party toying with soft Hindutva off and on has definitely led to a trust deficit among the community," said a community leader.
So what was the reason for the community not going with AIMIM. "Dozens had started leaving a few days after joining the AIMIM ranks. The reason was that the party leaders made a lot of hue and cry on issues pertaining to Gujarat at the national level and even in the Parliament but never talked about them while they were touring the state.
"There was a lot of disillusionment when the top leadership of the party failed to go to Himmatnagar to meet the victims of the recent episode of communal violence. To make matters worse the leadership even failed to meet them when they had come to Ahmedabad," pointed Shamshad Pathan, a prominent social activist and a lawyer who was among the first to leave the AIMIM ranks.
KR Koshti, another senior functionary of the party in Ahmedabad who quit the ranks a day ahead of the polling, accused the senior leadership of the party of not being serious in contesting the polls. "Over the last six months the office bearers of the party had been consistently requesting for starting poll related work in all earnestness but there was no response. There were no activities initiated and no effort was made to establish direct contact with voters through corner meetings or door to door campaigns. The office bearers of the party were not given any responsibility except an appointment to a designated post. In all it appears that we are nowhere in electoral politics of Gujarat," he said in a media interaction.
But there was an interesting phenomenon at work on seats with a substantial number of Muslim voters. "Imagine 230 Muslim candidates being in fray on 73 seats when the entire Muslim population in the state does not exceed 10 per cent. This goes on to prove that there was something extraordinary at play and everyone knows who stood to gain in such a scenario," pointed an Ahmedabad based political observer.
While AAP had fielded three Muslim candidates, the Congress had given tickets to six. The minority wing of the latter had asked for tickets to 11 candidates from the party. Interestingly, the last occasion when the Congress had fielded candidates from the community in double digits was in 1995.
The highest number fielded from the community in the last 40 years was 17 when the Congress leader Jeenabhai Darji had come up with the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula that was duly implemented by Madhavsinh Solanki. The results had been positive with 12 of these candidates reportedly entering the state assembly at that time.
By the 1990 elections, the BJP associating itself with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement saw majoritarian politics taking strong roots in the state. Sources say that it was only in 1998 polls that the BJP had fielded a lone Muslim candidate from Vagra constituency in Bharuch in Abdulgani Kureshi and he had not been successful in winning the polls.
Since the 2002 polls held in the shadow of Godhra train burning episode and subsequent anti-Muslim pogrom, the Congress has not fielded more than six candidates from the community.
Coming back to the plight of the Congress in the state, the question being debated is whether the grand old party is dead and dusted in the state?
Renowned political scientist Achyut Yagnik while recounting the reasons for the dismal performance of the Congress in election after election and while predicting a rout for the party ahead of these elections had told this reporter, "the Congress is weak compared to the BJP. Madhavsinh Solanki and Jeenabhai Darji knew the pulse of the people. Jeenabhai could tell the caste composition of any constituency. After the passing away of these two leaders, the Congress has not produced any proper leader of such stature.
"Present day Congress leaders are devoid of grassroot understanding or contacts. Earlier, the Congress Seva Dal was pretty active in Gujarat but we don't hear of it nowadays. In fact, there was a bustling Sewa Dal academy in Mahemdabad in Kheda district. On the other hand, the RSS has spread its base far and wide covering every sphere of life."
Yagnik also had an explanation to give about the KHAM formula losing its relevance in the present context and fading into oblivion. He said, "Caste formula is not important any more as increasing urbanisation and aggressive Hindutva have changed the situation. The present voting pattern has neutralised the earlier caste balance.
"The influence of the religious sects has erased the differences between sub-castes. As all sub-castes now flock to these religious sects where doctors get patients and patients get doctors. Only aggressive Hindutva prevails now."
There are many views about the status of the Congress in context of the present poll outcome and the future. "Nothing is permanent in politics. Who knows what the scenario will be in the coming years and what impacts the thought process of the people. In any case, the BJP being compelled to engineer defections of the Congress MLAs that had won the last time and fielding many of the imports from the party this time is a story in itself," said an observer.
Still there are others who feel that it is on account of the stupendous response the Bharat Jodo Yatra led by senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been getting that the BJP under Modi and his man Friday Amit Shah were compelled to raise the communal pitch in the campaign for these polls along with other narratives that have come to be identified with the saffron fold.
Just before the polling, party leader Pawan Khera was seen actively countering questions about the Congress losing contact with the masses. He said it was the Congress leaders that had taken out a Covid Nyaya Yatra that had compelled the government to accept that the number of those dead during the Covid-19 outbreak was far more than what was being claimed.
"There was only one party that was active during the Covid19 outbreak and that was the Congress. Our sitting corporators died while working for the people. It was the Congress leader who led the agitating for scrapping the Tapi-Par initiative of the government," he said.
The Congress can at least draw solace from two victories that are being seen as a positive sign for the party. The first is that of Jignesh Mevani who has emerged as a Dalit face in the party. The second is that of Anant Patel who was spearheading the movement against the now stalled Tapi-Par project in the tribal dominated areas of south Gujarat. Jignesh had even gone in for crowd funding of his poll campaign.
Meanwhile, AAP's biggest solace comes in becoming a national party "We worked hard and the people of Gujarat gave us so much love that we got the pride of becoming a national party. If anyone in the whole country has been able to break the BJP's 27-year fort in Gujarat, only Arvind Kejriwal (national convener and Delhi chief minister) and the AAP have been able to do it.
"Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was BJP's stronghold for 15 years and Arvind Kejriwal has demolished their fort," said AAP leader Sanjay Singh after the declaration of results. He said the AAP got more than 35 lakh votes in Gujarat.
Another party leader Gopal Rai said, "This time the people have opened a window in Gujarat, next time they will break the door."
For several sections of the society the results are immaterial because they feel that as a part of the socially and politically marginalised lot they will have to continue with their struggles for betterment of their lot irrespective of the fact whose government is in power. They point to the underbelly of the glory and glitter that is visible and keeps a visitor in awe of the place.
For example, social activist Vipul Pandya pointed out, "no one talked in their speeches about the plight of the labour class in Gujarat whose basic wages have not been revised for years, what to talk about implementation. Similarly, there was nothing on the housing of labourers by making new labour colonies."
During a visit to Chharanagar which is the abode of the denotified tribe of Chharas, the people pointed to the stigma that continues to be attached to their community. "We continue to be treated as criminals despite the youth in the community achieving heights in the field of academics, theatre, film making, legal profession and other vocations. You can see for yourself how the neighbouring communities have erected fences around their houses. We even had to fight to get space to hold our Panchayat meetings in an open space near the Police Station," pointed out Aatish Indrekar of the community.
Meanwhile, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has come out with some interesting statistics on the polls saying that out of the 182 winning candidates analysed in 2022, 40(22%) have declared criminal cases against themselves of which 29 (16%) have serious criminal cases against them.
It added, "the average of assets per winning candidates in the Gujarat Assembly elections 2022 is Rs 16.41 crores. The average of assets per MLA in the Gujarat assembly elections 2017 was Rs 8.46 crore."
While, 86 (47%) winning candidates have declared their educational qualification to be between class 5 pass and class 12 pass, 83 (46%) candidates have declared having an educational qualification of graduate and above. There are seven candidates who have declared themselves as just literates while six winning candidates are diploma holders.
Coming back to the tale of two bridges, just when the political parties had ensured that the Morbi bridge collapse with 135 reported deaths became a non-issue, two more manhole workers had reportedly perished while on their job a week before the polling at Mirzapaar of Bhuj. Reports say that more than 275 people have died while cleaning sewerage lines in Gujarat over a decade since the High Court had banned the practice of sending any one into gutters without adequate safety equipment.
It was pointed that since the victims in such cases are almost invariably poor and from lower castes, no political party except the Dalit rights organisations ever espouse their cause. Coming to the walkway Atal bridge in Ahmedabad there were some cheeky comments coming from the locals.
"The government builds a bridge with public money, names it after a former prime minister while the current Prime Minister inaugurates it ahead of polls and then gets the same public to pay to walk on it. Then there is another aspect of pedestrians having to pay for using a bridge while those travelling in expensive cars can use motorable bridges for free. Now what do say about this model which becomes a reality only in Gujarat," said a keen political observer.