Debating India

GUJARAT

Clock Ticks

Darshan DESAI

Monday 14 June 2004, by DESAI*Darshan

All set to save Gujarat’s pride, Modi loses his own as dissidents smell blood

Very often when an individual becomes larger than the party, both take a hit. The BJP and chief minister Narendra Modi learnt this lesson the hard way after their poor showing in Gujarat in the Lok Sabha elections. ’Gujarat ka gaurav’ Narendra Modi is now being blamed, paradoxically, for bringing disrepute to the state. He had, by common consensus, demoralised party workers and leaders alike by his autocratic style of functioning, not entertaining any requests even from his MLAs. The BJP workers thus went into the elections with half a heart, just going through the motions of campaigning.

But was it all only Modi’s fault? Apparently, yes. Ever since he led his party to a landslide victory in the December 2002 assembly elections, Modi had through his utterances, actions and body language impressed on the BJP state unit that he alone was responsible for the party’s political stature in Gujarat. So if the knives are out in the Gujarat BJP, with dissident MLAs-some 60 of them-demanding his ouster and MLA Purshottam Solanki describing him as Hitler before TV cameras, Modi alone has to take the blame. The brewing revolt is stirring out of a series of personal insults many legislators, including some ministers, have had to suffer from his acerbic tongue.

Consider these telling instances:

-  A senior cabinet colleague who sought an audience with Modi for "just two minutes" for some urgent work was cut short by an impatient CM with a "Sorry, your two minutes are over."

-  Two MLAs from the Panchmahals who went to him to represent a local issue were told they didn’t deserve to be MLAs and it was only because of him that they were elected in the first place. "After this, we decided never to go to Gandhinagar again," one of the legislators told Outlook.

But while the dissenters have enough reason to be unhappy with Modi, the BJP high command is very clear it does not wish to precipitate a crisis at this point by asking Modi to step down. For one, the party is yet to recover from its electoral reverses at the national level and then the Gujarat assembly’s budget session concludes on June 10. The central leadership does not want to risk a change that will confirm trouble in its stronghold.

This explains the party’s recent warning to dissident legislators to "behave themselves" and not to criticise the state government on the floor of the House or vent their grievances in public.

Following this, Atul Patel, at whose birthday party 60 dissident BJP MLAs had gathered, went with two other north Gujarat MLAs to Modi with a request for a piece of land for the extension of an educational institution. The land allotment had already been approved by the revenue and finance departments. But Modi, who kept watching TV while the legislators presented their case, finally told them off: "Get this file cleared by the new chief minister, I will not clear it."

After much pressure, Modi has begun to meet MLAs individually and telling them there would be an expansion of the cabinet soon. Legislators are to be accommodated on the boards of state-owned corporations too. But such belated carrots have not mollified all-BJP MLAs were openly asking ministers uncomfortable questions in the assembly.

In the BJP’s post-poll assessment, the Gujarat verdict went against all calculations because of lack of enthusiasm in the party at the grassroots level. There was also low mobilisation of voters. As one BJP leader put it, "The one-man government and the party organisation were working at cross-purposes." According to him, the fact that the Congress scored over the BJP in as many as 92 out of the 182 assembly segments is too stark to be ignored. The intriguing bit is that the urban middle class, represented by the BJP’s original constituency of Patels, Brahmins and Banias, failed the party this time.

But Modi was blinded by his own confidence; he didn’t want even Atal Behari Vajpayee to campaign in Gujarat. Now, his fate hinges on what the high command decides for him in the days to come. In the state BJP, dissent rules.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 14, 2004.

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