Aditya Sinha: No weeding out the lotus in Gujarat
Despite murmurs of resentment against the ruling party, PM Modi and the BJP have no intention of losing the Gujarat Assembly polls
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked his Gujarat Assembly election campaign into higher gear. This is not an election he or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah plan to lose, and so they are not relying on Modi's charm and charisma alone. It is whispered that an unusual amount of money is flowing - compared to around Rs 1,500 per voter on average in past Assembly elections, it has jumped to R20,000 per voter on average this time around.
PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah wave confidently to supporters at an election rally on the outskirts of Ahmedabad last month. Pic/AFP
Yes, hard evidence for this figure is hard to come by, other than what businessmen in Ahmedabad murmur to their counterparts outside. However, no one ever needed evidence to believe that Gujarat is India's 'hawala hub'. Anyone in Mumbai who's needed to move cash for an inter-city real estate transaction knows which Gujarati community to go to.
Ironically, last year's demonetisation of high-value currency sucked a lot of unaccounted cash from the system, and this has reduced the quantum of hawala transactions. So where are the election funds coming from? It is said that some people, coincidentally linked to the ruling party, may have 'guessed' that demonetisation was about to happen and took necessary measures; it is said that in Gujarat, electoral funds were parked in cooperative banks.
The BJP is thus expected to form another government in Gandhinagar. Only a few Congress supporters are convinced that Modi and Shah will lose. Such diehards argue that of all the states in India, it is in Gujarat that the trading community was hit hardest by the drying up of cash last November and then by the Goods and Services Tax in July. This may not be visible in Ahmedabad, the state's showcase, where its middle-class unhesitatingly swear by Modi. Go out of the urban hub, however, and the disenchantment is clear. This resentment has converted Rahul Gandhi into a confident politician, after years of keeping a low profile.
Even the most hard-boiled wonder whether such enthusiasm can be converted to winning margins, given Amit Shah's meticulous organisational work. As he did in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the BJP president has kept the party's basic unit at the level of the voting booth. As anyone around the world knows, in any election, the party with a stronger ground operation always has the advantage.
Additionally, there is the electronic voting machine (EVM). Frankly, I was impressed when India shifted over from paper voting given how routine it was in my home state of Bihar for musclemen to stuff ballot boxes with bulk-marked ballot sheets. In the recent past, however, instances of 'fixed' EVMs have emerged, the latest in the first phase of UP civic elections held last week. In Meerut, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member captured on video how despite voting for the BSP, the machine registered the vote for the BJP; BSP chief Mayawati has threatened an agitation if this trend continued. In Kanpur, a friend reports that in a couple of segments where the electorate is almost 100 per cent Muslim, EVMs showed significant voting for the BJP. After the local Samajwadi Party complained, the EVMs were changed - but the votes already cast remained valid.
One would have ordinarily looked to the Election Commission to reassure voters on this count, but the Chief Election Commissioner, former Gujarat chief secretary Achal Kumar Joti, has thrown his reputation into the same flood waters that he blamed for the delay in announcing Gujarat's election schedule.
Normally, when two party factions squabble over an election symbol, as happened with the post-Jayalalitha AIADMK, and one is awarded the symbol - in this case the Modi-friendly EPS-OPS faction - then you generally disregard the loser's whining. Not anymore. You wonder whether TTV Dhinakaran is right to complain about the EC's partisanship.
Joti is so poorly-regarded now that people say he makes former CEC Navin Chawla look like a saint. Chawla was so partisan that in 2009, when he was just an Election Commissioner, his boss N Gopalaswami wrote to the President of India seeking his dismissal. In his letter, Gopalaswami accused Chawla of taking frequent bathroom breaks during Commission meetings, ostensibly to telephone the Congress party to both pass on information and seek guidance. (Gopalaswami himself was a great pal of former deputy PM L K Advani, but he never gave anyone reason to accuse him of acting in a partisan manner.) The BJP had petitioned Gopalaswami to act against Chawla in 2006, but Gopalaswami delayed it for as long as possible; in the end, the petition went nowhere, Chawla took over as CEC and conducted the 2009 parliamentary poll, and no one complained.
Joti retires in January 2018, but by then he would have overseen the Gujarat election. And, as mentioned at the start, this Gujarat election is not one that Modi and Shah plan to lose.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org