Is Modi losing on his home turf? Oh, sorry. Let me rephrase. Can Modi be defeated in Gujarat? From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, this question is the one dominating politics and those with any interest in it. Some are puzzled, some are ecstatic and some are depressed. Even those who believe that Modi is a demi-God and can't be defeated seem to be nervous. This anxiety in the BJP is palpable, easy to identity and difficult to hide. For a few months after the UP assembly results, it was really difficult to imagine that Modi could be defeated, or to think that the Congress could accomplish this wonder. But in just a few months, things have changed.
One, there is a new-found confidence in the Congress. Rahul Gandhi is no longer the Pappu
that he was being projected as by traditional and social media. Now he is taken more seriously, especially after his Berkeley sojourn. There is a definite change in the attitude of mainstream TV. He is covered better and given more space than he used to get earlier. Two, there is a definite decline in Modi's popularity. He is directly being blamed for the demonetisation-GST mess and the sharp decline in economic growth. The third and the most potent reason is Modi's extra-ordinarily fierce attack on Rahul, the Congress, and its legacy in Gujarat and otherwise.
During the elections, Modi's success has so far been attached to his approach of making himself the focal point of discourse and controversy, so that it is he who is discussed and debated, either negatively or positively. His style has been to create a polarised atmosphere in which he is loved and/or hated, but never ignored. This time, he is unable to create the same magic. The combination of Rahul and Hardik Patel has kept Modi on a tight leash and the BJP on the defensive; it is Modi who appears to be justifying his policies. Earlier, Modi had successfully sold the development model of Gujarat to the world. This time, it is the other way round. Social media, which has been Modi's strong point, has punctured his 'Development Balloon'' and the "development gone crazy" campaign has gone viral. Modi should have woven a counter-narrative, but he failed and in his frustration, he is attacking the Congress. His attack has three dimensions:
1. Congress hates Gujarat,
2. Congress means riots in Gujarat
3. Congress is anti-national.
To Modi's credit, he has resurrected the idea of the sub-nationalism of Gujarat. Ever since he became the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has spoken repeatedly about "6 crore Gujaratis". "Vibrant Gujarat" became a powerful brand and "Gujarat Gaurav" a powerful message. Then he smartly marketed himself as the most powerful symbol of Gujarat pride; that evolved into him actually becoming Gujarat pride. Every attack on him he turned into an attack on Gujarat and its pride. To sharpen his argument he has added Sardar Patel into the mix. The entire effort to showcase how Sardar Patel was ill-treated by the Congress led by Nehru is part of a greater design. While campaigning in Bhuj, Modi said, "Congress had meted out severe ill-treatment to Sardar Patel whose pain is well documented in his daughter Maniben's book."
Now he has gone a step ahead and has invited Morarji Desai, the former Prime Minster who was from Gujarat, into this debate. While speaking in Bhuj he said, "Morarji Bhai had himself said how he was thrown out like brinjals and potatoes." And who was the person who should be blamed for Morarji's "so-called" humiliation? None other than Mrs Indira Gandhi! So Modi reminds the people of Gujarat that in 1980, when the embankment in Morbi collapsed, Indira Gandhi walked around the region with a handkerchief covering her nose. He has also derided Rahul for visiting the Somnath temple, referring to Nehru's opposition to its restoration.
Gujarat has been prone to communal riots. Every decade before 2002 witnessed two to three big riots. The Congress has been blaming the BJP/RSS for such clashes. The BJP has been shifting the blame to the Congress. Whosoever may have been responsible, the riots were a punishing reality. There is no denying the fact that since 2002, Gujarat is relatively peaceful. Modi takes credit for that. In his election speeches, he is reminding the people that if the Congress comes back to power, then riots will come back to haunt the state again. In a rally in Jasdan he said, "Remember the Gujarat from before 2002. There were frequent riots. Before coming to Ahmedabad, people had to call up and confirm if the situation was peaceful. They were unsure if going back at night was safe." By harping on the issue of safety in the night, Modi is indirectly hinting at the aggressive Muslims dons who once ruled the state's underworld. In fact, the 1994 assembly elections could be termed a referendum on Abdul Latif Sheikh, the feared bootlegger and an associate of Dawood Ibrahim. Latif was very closely connected to the Congress then. In Gujarat, security and safety is a huge issue it being a business community, and who knows this better than Modi? He wants to scare the people of Gujarat.
It is so ironical that a party responsible for the division of Pakistan into two countries is today blamed for anti-nationalism. The bigger tragedy is that the Congress is unable to counter this. Modi has brought back that anti-nationalism plank again. In his campaign, his aim is to portray that the country won't be safe in Rahul's hands. He claims that the Congress celebrated the release of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed and raised doubts about the army's surgical strikes last year. He also rakes up the issue of Rahul meeting with the Chinese envoy during the Doklam crisis. Without taking Rahul's name, Modi said, "You cherished meeting the Chinese ambassador and clapped on the release of terrorists like Hafiz Saeed."
Modi's blistering assault on the Congress and Rahul has brought the party and its leader into a new sort of prime time. In 2002, 2007 and 2012, assembly elections were about Modi and his policies. He was the focus, not the other way round. But this, time it is reversed. The Congress is relishing the idea. As of now, the duel seems to be evenly balanced. But one thing is certain - Modi is batting on a weak wicket. He is committing the same mistakes which he committed during the Delhi assembly election. Then also, he relentlessly attacked AAP and Arvind Kejriwal, calling them all sorts of names. He went so far as to say that AAP belonged in the jungles. And the verdict from then is known to all. Modi then was overconfident, but after two and a half years, he looks nervous. His old charm is missing. His rhetoric seems to have lost its lustre. His aggression is not a sign of confidence. But can the Congress capitalise is the million dollar question. Modi can lose - but can Rahul win?(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.