Development, an after-thought in Gujarat campaignMay 5th, 2009 | By Elections2009 | Category: Business Line features
Economics became the issue of politics as the Congress tried to convey to Gujarat’s people what the UPA has done for the BJP-ruled State since 2004, and the BJP raked up the issue of the black money stashed abroad.
Ahmedabad: The one silver-lining in an otherwise clouded political atmosphere during the just-concluded Lok Sabha election in Gujarat was the return of the development agenda. The aam aadmi (common man) Congress took the lead from the ruling BJP which has been trying to wash away the 2002 communal riots stigma through the detergents of Vibrant Gujarat., etc..
The poll campaign was singularly listless in large part as no emotive issues cropped up in the run-up to the April 30 vote. Only towards the end the Godhra ghost was resurrected to haunt the BJP much as the Bofors was revived to fire salvos at the Congress. Whatever the exigency, the Congress made economics the issue of politics; it tried to convey to the people what the UPA-ruled Centre has done for the BJP-ruled State since 2004. Its actual impact in terms of vote remains to be seen but still the issue was raised.
Role reversals The BJP, led by the veteran, Mr L. K. Advani, raked up the issue of black money and even conducted a ‘referendum’ claiming that 97 per cent of the 25 lakh ‘voters’ disfavoured this ill-gotten money. Whatever response the issue may have received elsewhere in India, in Gujarat, known for its business-minded people, the issue did not seem to cut much ice.
In role reversals, the BJP and the Congress diverged from their core strengths: Mr Modi, whose forte of painting the minorities and secularists with the same brush had paid rich political dividends since 2002, was apparently at a loss this time as the developmental agenda he was harping on was not attracting the expected crowds. So, he tried to provoke the Congress, likening it to a “125-year-old, burdensome woman.” On the last day of campaigning (April 28), he also tried to raise temperatures by saying that he could be arrested after three months, referring to the Supreme Court’s directive to the Special Investigation Team to probe his alleged role in the 2002 riots.
But the Congress refused to fall into the Modi trap, the reverses of the 2007 Assembly elections still green in its memory. An apparent slip-of-the-tongue by Ms Sonia Gandhi, hinting that the Modi-led BJP was a “Merchant of Death,” had given the Chief Minister a much-needed handle to whip up an anti-Congress frenzy, which returned the BJP to power with a thumping majority. The Congress leadership — Dr Manmohan Singh, Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi — that canvassed in Gujarat, carefully avoided mentioning even Mr Modi by name this time. Thus, the campaign appeared listless. But in the last week, the Congress tried to make up by virtually hijacking the pet issue of ‘development’ which Mr Modi has tried to sell across India. The Congress also tried to puncture the Modi balloon and ‘expose’ the BJP Government’s attempts to label the Central schemes as its own achievements.
Thus, the apparent ‘issuelessness’ created a void in which the real issues of the people surfaced. In the 1990s, a former Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Mr Digvijay Singh, had boasted that elections were won by ‘vote-management’ and political personalities rather than by issues — his party paid a heavy price in the State, as the BJP raised the issues of bijli, sadak aur paani (electricity, roads and water) effectively and put the Congress on the defensive in MP as also in UP and Bihar that were clamouring for development.
Congress returns compliment The Congress raised in Gujarat this time the same issues the BJP had raised in MP in the 1990s. The Congress came up with data to disprove Mr Modi’s charge that the Centre had meted out a step-motherly treatment to Gujarat in terms of funds allocation and benefits of various developmental programmes. Mr Arjun Modhwadia, Gujarat Congress spokesman, compiled the data claiming that the UPA Government had provided Rs 60,000 crore to Gujarat in five years.
The Prime Minister highlighted that the development of Gujarat was not because of the BJP Government but in spite of it as the western State has traditionally been progressive. Giving statistical details at pubic meetings, he said India registered an impressive, 8.6 per cent rate of growth during the UPA regime, the highest-ever, unlike the NDA Government’s five-year average of 5.6 per cent. Even agriculture grew at 3.5 per cent, double compared to the 1999-2004 period.
As regards Gujarat, Dr Singh said the State’s Eleventh Plan allocation has been more than doubled compared to the Tenth. He enumerated Central schemes in Gujarat such as the national highway projects, the Rs 1,000-crore Ahmedabad-Dandi Heritage Road, development of airports at Surat, Vadodara and Porbandar besides Ahmedabad, the Dedicated Freight Corridor to link Gujarat’s ports with the northern States, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Ahmedabad-Dholera Investment Region and a host of others, to some of which the Modi Government had been claiming credit.
Ms Sonia Gandhi, too, adopted the strategy of trapping the BJP in its own plank. Enumerating schemes such as the 100-day employment guarantee programme and the Rs 65,000-crore waiver of farmers’ loans, she accused the Modi Government of not using Central funds “honestly and properly”. Raising the Narmada issue, she asked why the Modi Government had failed to provide adequate water to the farmers. About the Nano issue, she said the State Government had been generous to industrialists at the expense of farmers and the poor.
‘Government of rich’ Mr Rahul Gandhi also followed the same script when he charged the BJP regime in Gujarat with being a “government for the rich”. “We have an India of the poor and an India of the rich; the NDA tried to sweep the former under the carpet of India Shining,” he said at an election rally in Mehsana on April 28, the last day of campaigning.
Clearly, the Congress tactically ignored Mr Modi. But it tried to compensate for this by targeting Mr Advani. Trying to get even with the BJP allegations that Dr Manmohan Singh was the “weakest-ever PM,” unable to tackle terrorism and economy, top Congress leaders countered that it was, in fact, the BJP that was being remote-controlled by the RSS and that it was during Mr Advani’s Deputy Prime Ministership that the then NDA Government had released dreaded terrorists, and the Parliament House was attacked.