Last Sunday, the Morbi footbridge over the River Machchhu in Gujarat collapsed. 135 people died. Oreva, the company that was contracted to maintain the bridge, built by the British in the 1880s, is under pressure to take the full blame so the administration headed by BJP’s B R Patel can face up to the impending state assembly elections without the baggage of the tragedy.
The elections were to be announced in October but had been put off as Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP was making inroads, and the BJP thought it wise to buy more time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, their star campaigner, to tour the state and galvanize voters.
Both Modi and Amit Shah hail from the state. Intelligence reports would have likely warned of the AAP’s potential gains on the ground. The Election Commission was helpful. Who doesn’t want a salary these days? The Commission refrained from announcing the dates. Just as the BJP thought life was beautiful yet again, the Morbi bridge collapsed. Now the BJP has to fight against the tide of the ill will caused by the fall of the bridge.
In court, one of the accused- an Oreva company manager- termed the bridge collapse as an "act of God”. This is a curious statement, which may, or may not, explain what could be the election outcome in Gujarat. Apparently, Oreva specializes in watch/clock making and repairs rather than bridge maintenance. The Oreva company based in Morbi reportedly does a lot of charitable work, and they probably thought taking up maintenance of the landmark bridge was a great exercise in cross-brand association. Just as the BJP thought putting off the elections was a good idea. Then strikes the hand of god.
Well, the Oreva PR strategy backfired. So did the BJP’s poll strategy. In recent weeks Modi has made several visits to the state as part of the election campaign to spread the word on the virtues of ‘Double Engine Growth’, meaning the Centre and the state together can accelerate developmental work. Bhupendra Rajnikant Patel, a first-time MLA from Ghatlodia, was handpicked by Modi to replace Vijay Rupani as the chief minister of Gujarat, with just a year to go into the elections, which would have been normally held in December.
But now that fate has intervened, democracy will have to wait. In hindsight, that permanent thorn in the BJP’s side, Kejriwal, had hinted at the need for gods to be given pictorial representation on the Indian currency notes. If Lakshmi and Ganesh appeared on a daily basis on the other side of a hundred rupee note, he seems to think, the arbitrariness of fate in the Indian economy would lessen considerably. The liberals among his sympathizers thought this was a bait; a trick to irritate Modi. But a careful reading of his speech suggests that Kejriwal was angling for Hindu votes.
The present Gujarat assembly term ends in February. By the end of December or the beginning of January, the state will have to hold elections. But with Morbi broken and 135 dead, what campaigns can Modi or Shah spearhead?
(The Election Commission announced on November 3 that the Gujarat polls would be held on December 1 and 5.)
Kejriwal may want more of our gods on the currency notes. But for all his populism and eccentricities, he is a shrewd politician. As in Punjab, which his party swept, there is a good chance Gujarat going AAP’s way. He has already announced a survey, a kind of referendum, to choose the popular candidate as chief minister: ‘I would like to ask the people of Gujarat as to who they want to see as the next CM of Gujarat. To know the opinion of the public, we are releasing a number -- 6357000 360. You can send SMS, WhatsApp messages, and leave voice messages. We are also releasing an e-mail - aapnocm@gmail. com," Kejriwal said.
Though AAP, naturally, does not say so, for all its pathos and tragedy, the fall of the bridge may work in Kejriwal’s favor. It is the god factor. Even if they get 40 to 50 per cent of the seats in the 182-strong assembly, the BJP image would nationally be dented.
Clearly, in Gujarat at least, the ‘act of God' (or the ‘hand of God', if you are a Maradona fan) is the single most unpredictable factor at work in Indian politics. It assumes the form and figure of Swapna Suresh (a lady allegedly involved in a recent gold smuggling case in Kerala, who has been tarnishing the image of many senior Marxist party leaders by leveling accusations of sleaze), a broken bridge in Gujarat, a god-sent birder skirmish that triggers patriotism- which happened a few years ago to the advantage of the BJP. God knows what else gods have in store for us this winter.
(This article was written before the Election Commission announced the Gujarat poll dates)
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)