Ear to the ground

Few people seem happy with BJP’s rule in Gujarat, yet the party still controls the state. Why?

Majoritarianism, largely.

In April 2017, Scroll.in’s Ear to the Ground project reached Gujarat. Each of the other states covered by the project thus far – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – showed one democratic malfunction or another. What about Gujarat?

Gujarat is unique in our subset of six states in having been under the rule of one party – the Bharatiya Janata Party – for 22 years. Particularly under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, which lasted 12 and a half years, Gujarat saw extraordinary centralisation of power. As the human rights lawyer and activist Girish Patel said, one man’s word was final. As for the Assembly, Patel said, it was called only when constitutionally required. Between 2007 and 2012, the Assembly convened for just 31 days every year.

As Gujarat’s people vote for a crucial Assembly election, the first after Modi moved to New Delhi as the country’s prime minister, five trends characterise the state’s political economy.

1) Majoritarianism explains Gujarat’s poor social development numbers

Take Gujarat’s low scores on health development indices. They are a puzzle. Most states with low human development scores are either cash-strapped like Punjab or unable to enforce their writ like Bihar. Neither condition applies to Gujarat. It has a healthier economy than Punjab and it is anything but a weak state.

The proximate answer to poor health indices is underfunding. A senior official in Chief Minister Vijay Rupani’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “Why are our per capita spends on health and education low? Because the state believes it should work on roads and create conditions for enterprise, that people will take care of schooling and health.”

This is majoritarianism at play. In Gujarat, upper and middle caste Hindus are more affluent than minorities such as Muslims and Adivasis. Indeed, communities such as the Patidars have their own medical colleges and hospitals, which, said a sociologist based in Ahmedabad who did not want to be identified, can handle even complex procedures like knee replacement. Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis have been left out in the cold.

This shows in the data. Health indices in Adivasi-dominated districts are far worse than the state averages. So are the grades for rural, Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes students.

2) Centralisation of power explains communalisation of the administrative machinery

About eight years ago, a now-retired judge in Gujarat began seeing a puzzling trend. Investigating officers’ work was getting erratic. One officer, the judge said, did “a very good job of finding the murderer in a case where all evidence was circumstantial, but in another case where a 7-year-old girl was raped by a Hindu, his investigation was very poor”. The officer’s work varied, the judge said, according to the religion of victims and attackers. “There is a polarisation in the police,” he said. “When a Muslim is charged, it is presumed that he must be guilty. This is something I have been seeing over the last 7-8 years.”

Patel noted something similar. “Muslims do not have any human rights,” he said. “They are not even legally arrested. They are just taken into custody for thirty days, forty days; the police try to extract a confession but do not produce them before the court. It is only when we file habeas corpus that they are presented.”

Such discrimination shows up in the work of the civic administration as well. Take the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura. Its roads, to take one example, are far worse than roads elsewhere in Ahmedabad.

Squalor and poor water supply mark this fishing village near Verawal in Saurashtra. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar
Squalor and poor water supply mark this fishing village near Verawal in Saurashtra. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar

How did this happen? According to Patel, the centralisation of power under Modi is part of the answer. “This form of centralisation was not there earlier,” he said. “This man got rid of all rival leaders in the party.” With centralisation, administrative autonomy weakened. “People who are close to the leaders have a better chance of getting promoted,” a retired police official in Gandhinagar explained. This, he said, resulted in an “anticipatory sycophancy for career advancement”. Today, said Patel, “Even IAS officials have personal loyalty to him. The police too is under complete control of the CM.”

Another part of the answer could lie in the gradual normalisation of majoritarian thinking. The retired judge recalled an instance when he was about to deliver an order pertaining to a communal riot. A fellow judge told him they were waiting for his judgement: “Hum sab ummed kartey hain ki aap dharm ki raksha karengey.” We all hope you will protect the faith.

3) Majoritarianism has hurt Gujarat’s minorities

In an interview to Scroll.in, political scientist Ghanshyam Shah said the Muslims have been isolated in Gujarat. This isolation is geographical (pushed into ghettos), economic (distanced from the state economy) and psychological. Religion is a marker that Muslims cannot escape. At the same time, there is a sense of vulnerability as a result of state actions like arrest by the police.

The community is responding in a set of different ways. There is greater focus on education, said the sociologist Achyut Yagnik. “Before 2002, there were 200 Muslim educational institutions,” he pointed out. “By 2010, that was up to 800.” The old are trying to signal their patriotism, added activist Hassan Jowher, but several among the young are despondent because they do not see a way out. The community’s responses vary according to economic class as well. “About 60% of Muslims are in despair,” Jowher said. “They are trying to leave, or taking solace in religion and thinking all this is God’s will. This is mostly the lower and lower middle class.”

The economically higher classes, he added, have softened towards Modi. Some business communities have even taken BJP leaders as partners to hedge against furture damage by the state.

Travel to Adivasi areas and you will see something different. As Shah explained, right-wing groups have long worked to bring Adivasis into the Hindu fold and 80% of this project is complete. In Dahod, said Pradeepa Dubey, a researcher at the Panchmahal office of the women’s rights NGO Anandi, “No one eats meat anymore. Not even eggs. This happened in the last 6-7 years.”

There are other changes. When the Adivasis give their name, they include their Hindu name. A Rathuwa Adivasi will say he is a Hindu Rathuwa. The festivals and gods have changed as well. Adivasi houses in her area of work, Dubey said, used to have paintings of Pithora Devta – paintings inside the houses depicting horses, nature and the like. “You do not see them in the new houses,” she said. “Instead, tribals are celebrating Ganapati and Navratri much more.” This has especially increased in the last 5-6 years.

Beneath it all, there is little actual development. As the charts above show, learning outcomes and healthcare indices in tribal Gujarat lag behind the rest of the state. That is despite the state government rolling out programmes such as Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana for tribal welfare in 2007.

Take healthcare. Even as staff attendance has improved in the Public Health Centres that Scroll.in visited, poverty continues to keep healthcare indices down. As Dubey, who has worked on tribal development with Anandi for 12 years now, pointed out, “Do time ki roti bhi mushkil hain. And things are worsening. Stithi badtar ho rahi hain. If you go to the ration shop, there is a biometric system. The ration shop is five-six kilometres away and people do not get their rations all the time.”

Similarly, in education, at the schools that Scroll.in visited in Panchmahals, teacher attendance has improved. But look at reports on Gujarat’s learning outcomes and you will see they are still poor.

Things get more complex when you look at the Dalits. The BJP’s project to mainstream them is struggling. In part because the majority community is struggling too.

An industrial worker in Surat. The city has been protesting against the GST ever since it was rolled out in July. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar
An industrial worker in Surat. The city has been protesting against the GST ever since it was rolled out in July. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar

4) Even the majority communities are facing an economic crisis

In the last five years, the state’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector has slipped into a crisis. Rural Gujarat is facing its own troubles. Groundnut farmers say they are being forced to sell well below the Minimum Support Price.

One contributing factor here is especially worth flagging. Increasingly, Indian government policy protects large input producers at the cost of small companies making finished products. Take textiles. India has an anti-dumping duty for polyester chips and yarn – but not for finished polyester fabric. The fallout? Companies competing with Chinese fabrics are caught in a vise. Even as their domestic raw material costs stay high, Chinese imports are pushing sale prices lower. Or take Saurashtra’s groundnut oil economy. It collapsed because India slashed import duty on palm oil, benefitting a handful of palm oil importers and countries such as Malaysia.

The fallout of these changes, said the sociologist based in Ahmedabad, is immense: the Gujarat money-making machine, he said, is slowing down.

As these stresses mount, even middle and upper caste communities are finding it hard to get heard by the state government. When the Patidars launched their agitation, for instance, the government repeatedly tried to stamp it out. “Section 144 is everywhere,” said Patel. “Meetings are not permitted. This is a police state, which has a chilling effect on opposition.”

The result? A growing number of people facing problems like pollution, land acquisition and denial of minimum wages go straight to the courts. As the Ahmedabad-based sociologist said, “Ground-level political movements have weakened. Things show up only when they come to a boil, like the Patidar agitation.”

Public protests aside, people respond in their own private ways. Gujarat is seeing rising migration from rural to urban areas. A growing number of businessmen are taking money out of their businesses and putting it in the stock market. After demonetisation and the roll-out of the Goods and Service Tax, this trend has accelerated. This accentuates the unemployment problem, contributing to agitations like the Patidars’. The conflict with Dalits, Shah said in his interview, occurs because the Patidars find themselves competing with them for the same opportunities.

Clearly, the majority community is fissuring. This shows in a set of ways. It is getting harder for Kadva Patels, for instance, to rent houses in a Leuva Patel colony. This is new, said Bhadrayu Vachchrajani, a sociologist based in Rajkot. “Before the Gujarat quake, we did not know which of our neighbours were Leuva Patels and which were Kadva Patels,” he added.

Why are caste affiliations strengthening? “In conditions of insecurity, people bank on each other,” Shah explained. “Each caste had a traditional support system. That is now strengthening as a caste-only support system.”

This is also showing up in religiosity. Religious display is much more overt in Gujarat now. “Earlier, we never saw a juloos at Janmashtami,” Vachchrajani said. “Now, at that time, [all of Rajkot] is taken over by processions.” Further, many more people are going to religious sects headed by living gurus.

At temples, said KK Kakhar, a retired professor in Rajkot, “You cannot see God. But, at the sect, one person embodies God. People’s lives have become less secure and so you go into a belief system.” This is similar to what we saw in Punjab, where people were looking for something more supernatural and immediately reassuring than the spiritual wisdom of the Guru Granth Sahib.

The interesting thing about Gujarat is that some of these coping mechanisms only strengthen the BJP.

Swaminarayan temple in Rajkot. As economic insecurity grows, Gujarat's middle castes are flocking to sects, which have close links with the Hindutva project. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar
Swaminarayan temple in Rajkot. As economic insecurity grows, Gujarat's middle castes are flocking to sects, which have close links with the Hindutva project. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar

5) But the BJP still manages to control Gujarat

Urbanisation brings people to cities, which are the BJP’s strongholds.

Rising religiosity brings people to sects and that helps the BJP in two ways. One, as Yagnik pointed out, the sects are anti-Muslim. As such, they reinforce the Hindutva project. The sects also have a symbiotic relationship with the state. The Swaminarayan sect, for instance, is “growing all over the world and they need foreign policy support,” the Ahmedabad-based sociologist pointed out. “Also, as these sects become large, they also have fissures and factions,” he added. When a guru dies, competing factions need powerful friends to gain control of the sect.

Two, the party relies on sects to influence voters. As previously reported in this series, the BJP gained control of Gujarat’s cooperatives to influence voters. The sects perform the same function, the sociologist argued, albeit at a deeper level. “This is about controlling people not through patronage or power but by controlling their minds.”

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks and the government had a similar symbiotic arrangement: in return for state patronage, the monks supported the attacks on the Tamil minority. In India, including Gujarat, we have sects issuing statements in support of government programmes.

It helps, said Lancy Lobo, director of Vadodara’s Centre for Culture and Development, that each sect has its own caste/class focus. “Swadhyay has a strong following amongst the dominant community – businessmen, architects, Brahmins, bureaucrats, judges,” he said. “The Swaminarayan sect has a base of peasantry and Patels. Others like Morari Bapu have a following among businessmen. Several OBC communities follow Aasaram Bapu. Sub-sects within the Swaminarayan sect like BAPS have NRIs and people in Central Gujarat as their followers.”

And so, while he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi assiduously groomed the sects. He would “chair meetings and special functions of the Swaminarayan sect,” said Vachchrajani. “So much so that when the sect’s leader died, people remembered how close Modi was to him and said Modi should become its new head.” Rupani has done the same.

Similar is the case with temples. As this press release shows, four of the seven trustees of Gujarat’s Somnath Temple are BJP leaders – Modi, LK Advani, Amit Shah, Keshubhai Patel. This, the sociologist said, is an effective way of influencing voters. “People may not take what the BJP and the RSS say seriously,” he explained. “But this is the temple’s head saying it. So, what we see once campaigning stops is that the sadhus come out.”

This goes beyond politicians making a beeline for the top 20 or so temples in Gujarat. Dhanraj Nathwani, son of Parimal Nathwani, the Reliance Industries’ Group President overseeing Corporate Affairs and Projects, is vice-president of the committee managing the Dwarkadhish temple in Gujarat. Why would corporate bosses want to be managing temples? According to the sociologist, this adds to the company’s security in relation to the state government. “If they can control the Vaishnav sampradaya, it gives them a political advantage,” he explained.

In many ways, this is India’s deep state.

After 22 years in power, the BJP controls most institutions in the state. Urban planning has been taken away from municipal corporations and given over to bureaucrat-run Urban Development Authorities, which take their orders from the state government. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar
After 22 years in power, the BJP controls most institutions in the state. Urban planning has been taken away from municipal corporations and given over to bureaucrat-run Urban Development Authorities, which take their orders from the state government. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar

Questions about Gujarat Model

Put it all together and you have to wonder who has benefitted from Gujarat’s majoritarian project.

“The majoritarian project has not helped everyone in the majority community,” argued Yagnik. “What the RSS wanted to do and how the BJP has used that power are very different. And so, whether you look at dairy farmers, farmers, industry, students, Patels, they are all protesting. And that is the failure of the BJP/RSS.”

This dynamic is what makes this Gujarat election different. The last 20 years have brought steady economic growth coupled with the BJP promising to keep the Muslims in check. (As the retired judge pointed out, “That police bandobast we see at the time of the [annual] rath yatra [in Ahmedabad]? That is to tell Hindus see how much we are doing to keep you safe.”) But even Hindu communities are struggling economically now. In large part due to the focus on big business, GST and demonetisation. So, can majoritarian sentiment override anger over economic losses?

Of course, the BJP controls sects and temples, urban areas and cooperatives. It quashes dissent and discourages critical commentary. Yet, travel through the state and you encounter much public anger against the BJP.

The Akali Dal, remember, exerted similar control over Punjab’s apex religious body, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee, but lost the election anyway.

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