For the first time since 2002, Gujarat is going to the polls with someone other than Narendra Modi in the chief minister’s chair. So Vijay Rupani has his task cut out for him. He is a soft-spoken man who rose from being an RSS pracharak engaged in local politics to the chief minister of the key BJP state. Not many know that Rupani migrated with his family from Burma to Rajkot and found his feet in politics in the student wing of the BJP.
Taking time off from his hectic election campaign, Rupani spoke exclusively to New Indian Express on the barrage of charges flung at him by Rahul Gandhi and the challenge posed by young rebels Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor.
Excerpts from an interview with Vijay Rupani:
Do you see this as a referendum on your government or Narendra Modi’s government?
This election is about Gujarat. The people of Gujarat are about to vote for a government in the state. It is the Congress which is raking up issues like demonetisation and GST. Today we have seen the results of the UP civic polls. This was an election in which the big and small cities of UP voted for their municipal bodies and mayoral posts. In the natural course, GST and notebandi were issues there as well. The Congress won zero seats and the BJP won 14 of the 16 mayoral seats. The BJP has won every election in the past one year. So, it’s clear that demonetization is not a factor.
Notebandi is a fight against black money. Among the poor and the middle class, we see a trust factor in favour of Modiji. For so many years, the Congress did nothing to fight black money, and the gulf between the rich and the poor kept increasing. Modiji is the first person who dared to take a bold decision to fight corruption. The people appreciate that. That’s why the middle class and the poor are with us. The manner in which the Congress has been drumming up these issues, it’ll cost them dearly.
Do you think the improved GDP figures will impact this election?
Rahul Gandhi was again saying yesterday that the economy has been ruined, unemployment is growing, etc, etc. Today he has been proved wrong. The GDP figures show there’s growth. It’s a vindication of our stand that the economy is sound. From Atalji's time to Manmohan Singh’s time, the economy has seen many ups and downs. That’s nothing new. But our fundamentals are strong. Even the World Bank, (Donald) Trump and other world leaders agree India is the fastest growing economy.
But ‘jobless growth’ is one term that is being heard all around Gujarat, in rural and urban areas. The Congress has made it a central theme of its campaign.
Rahul Gandhi is spinning tales. I’ve coined the word ‘gappeda’ for him. In the morning he tells people there are 30 lakh unemployed in Gujarat; by evening the figure becomes 50 lakh. Who will believe him? I’ve never seen a more confused person than Rahul Gandhi. He is not just confused with figures. Look at what happened in Somnath: he got registered as a non-Hindu. After that, he’s getting his people to say, ‘nahin nahin, yeh toh Shiv bhakt hain, janeu-dhari hain’ (he's a Shiv bhakt and a thread-wearing Hindu). He’s confused about his religion as well. I’ve never seen a more confused person in my life!
Why would people listen to him if that's the case?
I’ve challenged Rahul Gandhi previously, and I’m challenging his figures now. Let him provide some evidence to support his claims. Where is he getting these figures? There are two sources of information on this: the employment exchange and the government’s annual report. For the last 12 years, Gujarat has been number one on the list of job creation. The figures for 2016 show 83 per cent for Gujarat and 17 per cent for the rest of India. Take unemployment registration. A tiny state like Kerala has 35 lakh unemployed, West Bengal has 75 lakh, Gujarat has only six lakh. I can’t understand from where he’s got these 30 lakh, 50 lakh figures!
That may be because in Gujarat trade is what primarily attracts people.
That may be true. But Gujarat is providing jobs to other states also—12 lakh people from Amethi have come to Gujarat for work! There’s no logic in his argument.
Another big issue is Narmada. People, including those living on the banks of canals, are complaining that the river water is bypassing them.
The Narmada dam, after the installation of the sluice gates, has now been completed by Narendrabhai. The Congress did nothing. The UPA government was not giving us permissions. Only after Narendrabhai became PM could the work get done. The main channel –700 km -- is done. The water has reached Kutch, Banaskantha, Saurashtra. How this water can be distributed to all of Gujarat...that work is what we’re doing now. The subsidiary channels are in process, there will be further smaller sub-distribution channels to irrigate fields across Gujarat.
Is there a time-frame, because at present there’s scarcity and distress?
Two years if we come to power. The blueprint is ready. It’s one of the top items on our agenda.
Then why have you shifted the focus from development to a negative campaign of flinging allegations against each other?
We have a positive slogan: Hun Chu Vikas, Hun Chu Gujarat. It’s the Congress which is running a negative campaign. They started to poke fun at our development agenda with negative memes in the social media — that ‘Vikas gando thayo che...vikas gone crazy’ video.
Thanks to all this, particularly the Patidar Anamat Andolan, the BJP too had to give tickets to more people from the Patel community.
That’s not correct. Check our 2012 candidate list. Almost the same number of Patidar Patels and OBC candidates were fielded then. Not much difference. If we had not given more tickets, then you would have asked us: Why did you not give tickets to these communities, did you not have faith in them, you were not sure they would vote for you…
You can't entirely discount the disaffection of the Patidar community against your government. There were agitations.
Alpesh (Thakor) and Hardik (Patel) have been totally exposed as agents of the Congress. Alpesh has joined the Congress— he’s contesting on their ticket. In North Gujarat, people have burnt his effigies. Many supporters have left him. Similarly, Hardik and PAAS agitators stood in queue for Congress tickets — they’ve been exposed. Secondly, it's been proved that, logically speaking, reservation is not possible. Hardik had asserted he would get Patidars (a place in) the OBC quota any which way. Where’s that talk now? Neither the Congress, nor PAAS, nor Hardik is talking about reservation —formula, understanding or whatever. There’s complete silence. This was a fraud he played on his community. He’s betrayed his community for political power. So, the Patidar community has distanced itself from Hardik. Look at the statements (from other Patidar leaders) that this is no longer a community agitation but a private enterprise of Hardik.
Didn’t Hardik’s jan sabhas get huge crowds in the lakhs even in your constituency? Those photographs are in circulation.
The Rajkot one? I’m telling you, there were not more than 10,000 people there. Locals from Rajkot were not more than 1,000. People were brought from outside in 180 buses, from Saurashtra, Morbi, Junagadh, even Mehsana. This crowd was gathered to prove that he’s still relevant. When the results are announced on (December) 18th, the game will be over. All that I’m saying will be proved: the janata is not with him.
Leave aside Jignesh (Mevani), Alpesh and Hardik for a moment. Chhotubhai Vasava, an old tribal leader who was earlier with the JD-U — a party with which sometimes you had good relations, sometimes not — has levelled a serious allegation. That his life is under threat…
It’s a political allegation. He’s losing the election, that’s why he’s saying all this. He knows the ground beneath his feet is shifting, so he is trying to garner sympathy by making false allegations. Has he ever done anything in his area as a tribal leader? He cornered three seats from the Congress, he won’t even retain his own seat.
Why do you think Gujarat is going to vote for the BJP again?
Because they know that the BJP is working hard for them, both in the state and at the Centre. And it’s a golden opportunity for Gujarat — it can have the BJP in the state and at the Centre. Earlier, we had a hostile UPA government which was not allowing the state to have all-round development. The people here know how much Narendrabhai cares for Gujarat, that he will do everything to make Gujarat world class. The people have seen Congress rule both in the Centre and the state, they are anti-Gujarat. The Gujaratis are business people by instinct, they will weigh their options.
So you are saying the BJP’s Mission 150 is possible?
What do you think—120 seats? OK, I’ll say this: We’re working towards reducing the gap between 120 and 150 seats.