Has the Congress done it again? Will Congress leader Madhusudan Mistry's statement about Modi's "aukaat" (standing) be a defining moment in the Gujarat election?
Mistry made his remark in the morning. Hours later, Modi tossed it into the air as Rahul Gandhi arrived in Gujarat to campaign for the Congress. Addressing a rally, the PM said, "You all come from royal families, but I am from a normal family. I have no aukaat. I am a sewak (server); sevadar (servants) have no aukaat." He then shared the litany of insults used against him by Congress leaders in the past: "Maut ka saudagar" (Sonia Gandhi), Neech jaat (Mani Shankar Aiyar), "Chai-wallah" (also Mani Shankar Aiyar). "And now you have come to show me my aukaat." Earlier during the day, Madhusudan Mistry had made his statement in the context of promising to rename the "Narendra Modi Stadium" as "Sardar Patel Stadium" if the Congress forms government in the state, saying that "Hum Modi-ji ko unki aukaat dikahna chahte hain (we want to show Mr. Modi his place in society)."
Modi is a master at taking a personal comment made about him and converting it into a mega-issue in an election. In the 2007 election in Gujarat, when the Delhi media, cut off from reality, was suggesting the Congress might win the state and defeat Modi, Sonia Gandhi described him as "Maut Ka Saudagar". She was then the Congress president; he was the Chief Minister on whose watch Gujarat erupted in horrific communal riots.
But Modi swept the election. Many held that the riots played a huge role in the consolidation of Hindu votes in his favour. He was seen as the saviour of Hindus though he had invited global criticism for mishandling the riots and many countries pronounced him persona non-grata. If Sonia Gandhi thought that she would put him on the defensive by calling him "Maut Ka Saudagar", she was grossly mistaken. Modi turned that statement of Sonia Gandhi into an election issue. He presented himself as a victim of secular forces out to malign his image when he was working relentlessly for Gujarat's progress.
Even in the 2002 assembly elections, Modi exploited all the criticism to weave a narrative that the whole world was conspiring against him. Not just him, but against every Gujarati, is what he said. He did not spare even the National Human Rights Commission or the Election Commission, which was headed by James Lyngdoh, a Christian. The BJP's main opponent was also led by a Christian i.e. Sonia Gandhi. He referred to them in such a way that people were reminded again and again that they were Christians. He called Sonia Gandhi a "Jersey Cow" and Rahul Gandhi "a hybrid child". The attempt was to tell Hindu voters that Christians were conspiring against Hindus and the conspiracy was being hatched at a global level.
Before Modi, BJP leaders were quite defensive while playing the Hindu versus Muslim or Hindu versus Christian card. It was a different era. The Congress was still a dominant force and the BJP was led by Atal-Advani who grew up in the Nehruvian ecosystem. But Modi in Gujarat had no such hang ups. By 2007, he was creating a cocktail of Hindutva and Development. Sonia Gandhi's statement allowed him to invoke a communal angle. Political pundits and election analysts over-stated the "Maut Ka Saudagar" phrase as the sole reason for Modi's victory.
In my opinion, Modi's victory was a mix of many things. His personalised style of aggressive campaigning, raising Gujarati sub-nationalism and converting it into political currency, clever consolidation of Hindu identity supported massively by the multi-layered organisation of the Sangh Parivar and the ruthless use of state apparatus constructed a colossal election machine. The same experiment was repeated at the centre once he was chosen as the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013. In 2014, Congress was so damaged by the corruption charges that its defeat was inevitable but it was Modi's genius that helped the BJP sweep 2014 and then 2019.
Similarly, Mani Shankar Aiyar's twin statements, headlined by TV channels with prime-time debates - it helped Modi to emotionally appeal to voters as a do-gooder looked down on by the traditional elite. Yes, these remarks allowed him to present himself as persecuted and connect directly with the poor and marginalised but to equates these comment as turning points of the elections is a miscalculation.
Modi himself has made a few errors on this front - like his "Didi oh Didi" sneer in the Bengal election earlier this year which ended with Mamata Banerjee's landslide victory. And he is milking the "aukaat" insult - but this does not give the BJP a windfall gain in its campaign.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.