Narendra Modi, by default
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The results of the recent state election in Gujarat show an erosion of the BJP's domination. If the party loses only two seats (115 against 117) compared to 2007, this is largely due to the arrival of a third player, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). Had not this new actor been in the fray, the BJP would have probably lost 14 more seats to the Congress. In particular, the GPP has made a dent in one of the Congress's caste "vote banks", that of the Leuva Patels.
Still, Narendra Modi's hat-trick is remarkable. But what are the real factors of his success? He claims that his popularity results from his economic achievements. But Gujarat is far from the top 10 of the Indian states, in terms of literacy and malnutrition or according to the Human Development Index.
So why do people vote for Modi? The short answer could be: by default. The Congress has been facing a leadership crisis for years. It has never been able to project a strong contender for the post of chief minister — lest this would unleash faction fights. Besides, the party has an ideology problem: it has always promoted a conservative brand of Hinduism in the state and cannot easily invent an alternative to Hindu nationalism. Its only leader who has been re-elected this time, Shankarsinh Vaghela, is a former RSS cadre.
But in other states — like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — the decline of the Congress has not resulted in the rise to power of the BJP. In contrast to these states, OBC and Dalit politics are conspicuous by their absence in Gujarat and cannot operate as counter-forces to Hindu nationalism.
In fact, Gujarat calls to mind pre-Mandal, clientelism-based politics — with the BJP in the role of the Congress. Modi, indeed, benefits from the support of the savarnas, including the Patels, the dominant caste of Gujarat which left the Congress when it embarked on positive discrimination schemes in favour of the lower castes in the 1980s. They rallied around the BJP even more decisively when it articulated an aggressively Hindu nationalist agenda that provided them — like the Swaminarayans and other similar movements in Gujarat — with a more secure identity at a time when this erstwhile rural group was experiencing a rapid process of modernisation (and urbanisation).