India Elections 2019

Decoding Modi and the Vadnagar myth

Anjana Sankar (Reporting from Gujarat)
Filed on April 22, 2019 | Last updated on April 22, 2019 at 10.28 pm
Decoding Modi and the Vadnagar myth
The tea shop from where Modi claims he used to sell tea as a young boy at the railway station.

(AFP file)

Bias or no bias, when you are in Gujarat, development is the keyword to open conversations.

"Don't worry, You just come. Here our roads are better than your Dubai," my contact told me a day before I set off for Gujarat. Much like how a development-hungry nation wallowed in expectations in 2014, the prelude to the Gujarat model made my hopes rise instantly in 2019. The wide, pothole-free roads that ran through the state gave the right impressions at first.

"If you want to be objective, you have to accept that the state made tremendous development under Modi. Otherwise why would people vote him to power thrice as the chief minister?" a local journalist friend nudged me to be unbiased in my reporting. The advice was not totally unwarranted. There is perhaps no other Indian politician like Narendra Modi, who is loved and loathed in equal measure and with such intense passion. After the Haves and the Have Nots, the biggest wedge in a 1.7 billion nation is between those who are 'For' or 'Against' Modi. That includes journalists as well.

Bias or no bias, when you are in Gujarat, development is the keyword to open conversations. The developments that Modi brought about during his 12 unchallenged years at the helm of the state still drives his popularity among his supporters.

"He is a hard worker," vouches 60-year-old Firoz Khan from Modi's hometown Vadnagar. "The country is making progress under him. I think he should get a second term," says Khan, who claims Modi had served him when he was a 'Chaiwala' (tea seller) in Vadnagar. "He knows the life of poor people. He also knows how to live and behave like a rich man. It is his choice if he ignores his past."

But Modi is someone who never misses an opportunity to play up his underprivileged past. He had earlier turned the Congress' 'Chaiwala' taunt into a tag. In 2019, his self-gifted badge reads 'Chowkidar' (watchman).

At the Vadnagar railway station, the legacy of the tea seller remains untouched by development. The tea shop from where Modi claims he used to sell tea as a young boy at the railway station is retained as a dusty tin shack with a large board with his name scribbled on it. Curious children take turns to peep inside. Young Narendra's rags to racecourse story is the enticing thriller they hear from elders. The station where Modi eked out a living is getting a facelift. Construction is in progress to expand the tracks and attract more travellers.

"Development is visible. I agree his government has done a few things. But true development happens only when there are jobs. Poor people are suffering," says Kishore, a trader.

In the rural villages, Gujarat model has not made the cut. Unemployment is hurting people. Official figures reveal that there were 1.6 million unemployed people as of 2018. Modi's 'Vibrant Gujarat' extravaganza, his critics say, brought in investments but only in paper.

"Cities have progressed at the cost of villages. People are impressed by the fly-overs and infrastructure in the big cities. People in the villages of Gujarat have not tasted any development," Sikander, another Vadnagar resident told me.

No doubt, there is plenty of development talk on the streets, the prime minister seems to have turned the page on his past achievements as the chief minister of Gujarat. There is hardly any mention of his much-hyped Gujarat model in his campaign speeches as he seeks a second-term to rule the world's biggest democracy. Addressing a rally on the last day of campaigning in Gujarat's Patan on Sunday, Modi played his favourite Pakistan card. He said he had threatened Pakistan of dire consequences if anything were to happen to Air Force pilot Abhinandhan Varthaman who was captured by Pakistan. In the Pakistan-smashing, Congress-bashing sport Modi has picked up this election season, goal posts have clearly moved away from development.

The Gujarat Congress that is making inroads in the state is cashing in on rural distress that has visibly quelled the Modi wave. The party that is in alliance with the NCP is hoping to replicate its 77-seat win in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha (Assembly elections).

"This Gujarat model is a jumla (sham). We have been saying it from the very beginning. But the whole nation fell for the BJP's marketing gimmicks last election," a local Congress worker told me. "People got fooled once. But you cannot fool them a second time over."

At Tulsi Restaurant in Bagodhara, a motley crowd was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Shankersinh Vaghela, the veteran Congress leader who has now joined the NCP.

"If there is one person that Modi and Amit Shah are afraid of in Gujarat, that is Bapu (as Vaghela is popularly known)," said one of his loyalists.

Vaghela, many feel, is capable of denting BJP's minority and OBC vote bank. There were rumours that the 79-year-old ex-chief minister of Gujarat will contest against Amit Shah in Gandhinagar, which was a Vaghela stronghold once.

"The mask of development has fallen off. The BJP is playing communal politics and drumming up muscular nationalism. Gujarat needs development and we will offer that," Vaghela told the crowd while campaigning for Bhimal Shah, the NCP candidate contesting from Kheda.

In our journey together to his next stop at Lothal, Vaghela made it clear that his political ambitions are reserved for the next assembly elections. "I will contest in 2021. Not now."

For the Lok Sabha, he is confident that anti-incumbency wave is sweeping across Gujarat. "Farmers and youth have turned against the BJP. We are expecting double-digit seats."

Vaghela considers Modi an autocratic and manipulative leader in stark contrast to Rahul Gandhi. "He is a young gentleman. Not like other politicians. He will compromise anything just to stop the BJP."

Will he compromise for a Gathbandhan (grand alliance) sans a Congress prime minister?

"That question is not who will be the prime minister. That will be decided as a matter of consensus," said Vaghela.

2019 is a Modi Vs Rahul battle. If Modi is the self-made man who epitomises Gujarati pride, Rahul is a freshman who is fighting for India's secular values.

It was an irony of sorts that I heard the best apology for Congress' dynastic rule in Modi's hometown.

"Rahul belongs there (Delhi). He is someone who grew up watching his father and grandmother ruling the country. Leadership is in the family. Unlike Modi, he does not have to prove it," said Ashok Patel, an ardent Congress supporter from Vadodhara.

The BJP may not be able to count on a Modi wave in Gujarat when it goes to polls on April 23. But the son of the soil still has many ardent fans. And by their own admission, it is not easy for one Gujarati to let down another. "Modi belongs here.

Congress may say Chowkidar Chor Hai. But this Chowkidar is our own. It is our duty to vote for him," said Sikandher Khan Khureshi, a voter from Vadodhara.

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