Vikas is BJP's weakest wicket, says former Gujarat CM Suresh Mehta

Suresh Mehta. Illustration by Binay Sinha
Former Gujarat chief minister Suresh Mehta has been one of the foremost critics of Narendra Modi and the “Gujarat model of development”. Mehta, 81, quit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2007. He tells Archis Mohan the “reality” of the Gujarat model and how his Lokshahi Bachao Abhiyan (Save Democracy Campaign) hopes to expose this in the run-up to the Gujarat Assembly polls.

It is being said that your Lokshahi Bachao Abhiyan has the support of the Congress.

Our campaign is non-political. It has nothing to do with the Congress or any other political party. I feel, as a citizen, it is my duty to protect democracy. Along with like-minded individuals, including the Prabuddha Nagarik Manch, we have over the years tried to tell the people of Gujarat about the hoax that is the “Gujarat model of development”.

The Lokshahi Bachao Abhiyan has been asking the state government questions on farmer suicides, increase in dropout rates in schools, privatisation of education, poor state of sanitation and other issues of public interest.

We have planned a series of public meetings under the banner “save democracy” in the days ahead. Meetings are planned in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Surat on November 14, 15 and 16. I have invited (senior BJP leader) Yashwant Sinha. He has confirmed his participation.

How do you view the present political scene in Gujarat?

Tikadambaaji (gimmickry) usually has a brief lifespan in politics. It has been something of a surprise to me that the people of Gujarat would get sentimental, fail to see through the gimmickry and elect such people for three successive elections. This trend is neither good for Gujarat nor for democracy.

But the people of Gujarat woke up to the reality after demonetisation and, subsequently, the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). Now, the BJP is on a steady, and I would go as far as to say, serious decline.

An indication of this came when the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra (in October) was being termed “kaurav yatra” (loosely translated, a campaign by villains) on the street. After (BJP President) Amit Shah won his Rajya Sabha seat and relinquished membership of the state Assembly (in August), he identified three poll planks on which the party would fight the Assembly polls — garib kalyan (welfare of the poor) done by the BJP governments, outreach to Other Backward Classes by promising job quotas and Narmada waters (the work done towards construction of canals and increasing the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam).

But these three poll planks were dropped and related public events postponed or cancelled when they realised the public response was poor. This indicated that the BJP realised it was losing ground. They needed to have a poll plank, but had no credible issue to highlight. Now they have fallen back on vikas (development). It is the weakest wicket for them.

Why is it the weakest wicket?

Let us first make an assessment of the impact of GST. Small businesses, small industries and small traders are finished. The medium enterprises sector has found its businesses at least halved, if not reduced by two-thirds. The GST Council has announced some relaxation for the diamond trade, textiles, khakhra, papad and other Gujarat-specific industries. All of these are salty items, no sweets here (laughs). But I think the traders have made up their minds.

Let us take the Narmada dam issue. Gujarat had requested approval for constructing 38 canals. The erstwhile Planning Commission had then given conditional approval. It had asked the state government to follow the “vertical integrated approach”. But the state government backtracked.

The “vertical integrated approach” mandates that a second branch canal is opened only after the first one is completed and water reaches the end of the canal. But they constructed 37 canals and the waters have reached industries, but not farmers. A large number of intended beneficiaries don’t get any water. Farm production loss has been massive in the last 10 years and has contributed to the increase in farmer suicides. Opposition parties need to highlight that if they form the government they would abide by the “vertical integrated approach”.

The state government’s claims on welfare of the poor are not trusted. Promises to OBCs have not been kept and its attempt to divide the Patidar community backfired. There is anger among the Dalits because of atrocities against the community.

But hasn’t there been industrial development?

The Gujarat model is a jugglery of words and data. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General report of 2004, the state’s debt was approximately Rs 6,000 crore. But Gujarat is now in a debt trap. The state’s debt has increased to Rs 1.96 lakh crore. The state government had to make this data public in a statement in February 2017, under the Gujarat Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2005.

Compared to several other states, Gujarat ranks poorly on social indicators. Subsidies to farmers or outlay for the food programme for the poor have declined, while the state government has loosened its purse strings for a couple of big industrialists. The case of Tata Nano is an example of this, and how it was given interest-free loans and cheap land, but the project has failed to give returns. The state government’s documents in the public domain show that the quantum of tax revenue not realised by the end of March 2016 was over Rs 25,000 crore compared to Rs 18,000 crore in 2014-15.

What can be the role of the Opposition in this atmosphere?

The Opposition needs to reach out to the business community. It should tell them that under its government they would sleep in peace at night. The BJP is on the decline because of its misdeeds, its gimmicks and jugglery exposed and image sullied. How long can you fool the people? There is only so much air that you can fill in a balloon, after which it will burst. Since there is nobody else, the Congress will benefit from this sentiment.

Hasn’t the Congress played defensive politics in the state?

The Congress has been out of power in the state for the last 27 years. Over two generations of Congress leaders have not run administration. They have now forgotten how an administration is run. They also failed to offer any vision and continuously found erosion in their support base. They now have a handful of leaders who shy away from the rough and tumble of ground-level politics and have tried to survive by striking deals to protect their turfs. The Congress won in the panchayat elections (in 2015), but that had more to do with the people’s hatred towards the BJP than any love for the Congress.

The Congress not only needs to go beyond its current set of leaders in Gujarat, but also needs to have strategists who are capable of fighting the battle until the last moment. They (the BJP leadership) won’t let power slip out of their hands and will keep changing their strategy. The Congress needs to be fleet-footed, which is what it has lacked in Gujarat.

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