To those of us who were under the notion that the forthcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat would buck the trend and would be fought on issues like development, GST and the Gujarat model, it did not take long for our hopes to be dashed.
With just a week to go before votes are cast in the first round of elections in the state, the gloves, sadly, are well and truly off.
Truth be told, most elections in the state since after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and more so after the 2002 riots in Gujarat have had a strong element of communal polarisation.
This time around, from the Gujarat model of development and the GST, the debate has decisively shifted to whether Rahul Gandhi’s is a Hindu or not, the religion that Sonia Gandhi practises and whether Rahul and Priyanka had a Catholic or a Hindu upbringing.
For several weeks, Rahul Gandhi and the three young turks - Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor - kept the election campaign solely focussed on the economy, lack of jobs and the treatment meted out to the Patidars in Gujarat. The Congress party’s political managers were careful not to allow this elections to become a binary between the Congress vice-president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Just when it looked that they might be succeeding, came the controversy regarding an entry made in the Somnath temple diary about Rahul Gandhi’s religion, and now it's a free fall.
Rahul Gandhi and his campaign advisers sought to shield the Congress party from the charges laid at its door in previous elections - of being a pro-Muslim party - by making a beeline for the temples, from Somnath and Swaminarayan to every temple of importance depending on wherever he was in the state. So much so that they have been even criticised for playing the soft-Hindutva card.
The BJP appeared rattled by the attention that Hardik Patel and Rahul Gandhi began to enjoy and also by the anger against the GST. It was banking on the prime minister's campaign blitzkrieg and its formidable organisational machinery to once again turn the tide in its favour. But the script suddenly changed a few days back. The Gujarat model of development appears to have received a quiet burial and the focus is now on puncturing holes into Rahul Gandhi’s Hindu credentials. Unlike the previous elections where "Miyan Musharraf" and "appeasement of Muslims" were used to draw voters, this time around, it's Rahul Gandhi’s religious background.
The Congress party appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Its political managers fear that failure to rebut the BJP’s charge would make it vulnerable to claims that the Congress has something to hide.
However, the more it reacts and tries to project Rahul Gandhi as a "janeu dhari" Brahmin, it also ends up feeding the religious narrative.
Conspicuous by their absence from the current political discourse have been the 10 per cent Muslims of Gujarat. The Congress, out of fear of being labelled pro-Muslim, has chosen not to engage with them publicly, and the BJP seems far more intent on consolidating its own vote bank and continues to ignore them.
This, in turn, could unleash new dynamics. Prominent Muslims personalities such JS Bandukwala and Zafar Sareshwala are of the view that the minority community must withdraw from the political contest underway in the state. Bandukwala feels they need to do it because every time they become vocal, it helps the BJP polarise the majority community.
Sareshwala, a prominent businessman and a Modi supporter, feels Muslims are unlikely to gain irrespective of who comes to power, therefore they need to concentrate on educating and economically empowering themselves.
Be that as it may, the religious-baiting underway is unlikely to abate anytime soon. And, as always, Hindu versus Muslims will remain the main focus of elections in Gujarat.