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The demonisation of Gujaratis

It is a confusing time to be a Gujarati.

Largely, this is because every now and then, I am reminded of how Gujaratis are demonised in the public imagination.


For instance, there is no doubt that sections of the crowd behaved disgracefully at Ahmedabad where Pakistan was playing India in the ongoing ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup. I was ashamed, as an Indian and a Gujarati, of their behaviour. But I was also astonished by the generalisations about Gujaratis that followed.


   I won’t deal with the cricket aspect, which Shekhar Gupta covered in his column National Interest for The Print on Saturday; this is not my area.


   Instead, I will pose a separate question. Ever since the crowd behaved badly in Ahmedabad, there have been similar incidents in Pune and Bengaluru. But why is it that we have hardly seen any generalisations about Maharashtrians and Kannadigas?


   Could this be, I wonder, because Gujarat is Narendra Modi’s state? So nearly everything that is wrong with the state of secularism, pluralism and liberalism in our country — and God knows, there is a lot that is wrong — is to be blamed on Gujaratis?


   I don’t think anyone can deny that Modi is extremely popular in Gujarat but it is possible to overstate the extent and nature of the support. At the 2022 assembly election, our most recent measure of political loyalties in Gujarat, the BJP won around 52 percent of the popular vote. That means nearly half of Gujarat voted against the party — our first past-the-post system does not accurately reflect the respective vote shares of political parties.


   In the liberal imagination, not only is the figure for BJP voters much higher but the 52 percent who voted for the BJP did so because they hate Muslims. I am sure that is true of some BJP voters but this is too simplistic a caricature of Gujaratis. Not everyone who votes for the BJP is a Muslim-hater just as not everyone who votes for the Congress is a secular liberal.


   Further, many people act as though Gujarat was a model of diversity and pluralism until the BJP came along. In fact, the state has always been divided along communal and caste lines. I remember the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots in 1967 as a terrifying childhood experience and I covered the bloody riots of 1985 as a journalist.


   And while we constantly focus on the Hindu-Muslim binary, we forget that there are other kinds of divisions too. The caste-divide has been so deep in Gujarat that in the 1980s, Congress leader Madhav Singh Solanki was able to win the state for his party on the basis of caste through what was called the KHAM coalition (Kshatriya, Koli, Harijan, Adivasi, and Muslim). In 2012, Bharat Singh Solanki, son of Madhav Singh, expanded on his father’s idea by extending KHAM to include Patels. It didn’t really work because he was unable to get the Patels on board but it did help the Congress increase its seat count by 16.


  In 1985, when I covered the Ahmedabad riots, the ‘upper’ castes had begun to get nervous about Madhav Singh’s plans to further extend reservation to the castes that supported him. The BJP capitalised on the discontentment, exploited the Hindu-Muslim fault lines, and threw the Congress out of power in 1990 with the help of Janata Dal. Since then, it has never lost power in Gujarat, partly because of the Modi effect and partly because of how bad a job the Congress party has done in opposing it.


   I do not dispute that in exploiting the communal divide, the BJP initially went much further in Gujarat than it did in other states. But today, none of it seems so unusual. Very little of what is happening in Gujarat is much worse than what is happening in, say, Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh.


   "The era of Modi’s chief ministership coincided with an era of restored Gujarati pride and a new prosperity." 

   Why blame Gujarat alone for what is now a national norm? Why not accept that the reason the BJP has been in power for nearly a decade is because Modi sweeps the Hindi heartland? Gujarat really has very little to do with it.


   To be fair, the contempt for Gujarat could also be because the number two person in the central government, Amit Shah, is also a Gujarati, which may seem like a concentration of power in the hands of one community. It could also be because the Modi raj has seen the rise of Gautam Adani (another Gujarati) and the consolidation by Mukesh Ambani of his already vast empire.


   That’s hardly enough to demonise an entire state, which, ironically enough, ends up becoming one more reason why Modi’s Gujarati supporters love him. We forget now that in the 1970s and 1980s, Gujarat was a defeated society. Its prosperity had waned and the textile industry, on which much of its success was based, was dying or already dead.


   Politically, Gujaratis like to think that they have played a major role in the creation of modern India but that this role came to an unfair end by the 1970s. After all, according to Gujaratis, theirs was the state whose people had won us our Independence (Mahatma Gandhi). A Gujarati had united the states in 1947 and created modern India (Sardar Patel). A Gujarati had rescued Indian democracy after it was nearly dismantled by Indira Gandhi (Morarji Desai).


   And yet, Gujaratis say, they lost their political importance in the 1970s. Almost until the day she died, Gujaratis felt that Indira Gandhi did not like them. (That may be untrue but it is not wrong to say that there were few important Gujarati politicians at the national level in the Congress.)


   Even the reputation of Gujaratis as one of India’s wealthiest communities had collapsed. There were no great Gujarati business houses left until the 1990s when Dhirubhai Ambani (a Mumbai-based Gujarati) established himself as one of India’s top industrialists.


   The era of Modi’s chief ministership coincided with an era of restored Gujarati pride and a new prosperity. Perhaps, in some ways, one led to the other. But as Gujarati billionaires began emerging from the pharmaceutical boom, and prosperity spread, regional pride was renewed.


   For Modi’s more fervent Gujarati supporters, he represents the new Gujarati: back finally to being the old Gujarati in terms of influence and wealth.


   None of this is to deny the importance of Hindu-Muslim polarisation in the BJP’s appeal, but only to put Modi in context. And to ask the obvious question: Gujaratis have socio-cultural reasons for supporting someone of their own like Modi. What is Uttar Pradesh’s reason?


   No thoughtful Gujarati can be happy with the state of today’s Gujarat. But to blame it all on fascist Gujaratis, as some do, is silly and misses the bigger picture.


     I doubt if the demonisation of Gujaratis will stop anytime soon. In many circles, attacking Gujaratis has become just another way of attacking Narendra Modi. There is a certain intellectual laziness to this view. So, perhaps liberals should pause and rethink this approach.


     Yes, it is frustrating for those who do not like what the BJP is doing to India to accept that, at present, the party seems set to win the next Lok Sabha election as well in 2024. But why should Gujaratis as a people become the punching bag for some national frustration?



Posted On: 23 Oct 2023 01:28 PM
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