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Above: The failures of Vijay Rupani government have escaped attention in the re-naming euphoria/Photo: UNI

Like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat too is on a name-changing spree ahead of the 2019 elections. But will poll politics garner it more votes when there are more pressing issues to tackle?  

By RK Misra in Gandhinagar

With less than a year for general elections, the ruling BJP has shown its pan-India penchant for gallant game-changers and nervy name-changers. So pervasive has this phenomenon become and so predictable is this poll politics that at least 25 towns and villages across India have had their names changed in the last one year.

The most high profile name change has been that of Faizabad to Ayodhya and Allahabad to Prayagraj by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during an RSS-orchestrated campaign for the Ram Mandir.

Opposition leaders have slammed this selective poll politics. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already charged the Modi establishment with partisan “name games” and deliberate delay over her long-pending demand for renaming her state as Bangla. Gujarat too has climbed on the bandwagon, dusting off its old demand for renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati.

The Gujarat Congress has opposed this move. “Ahmedabad is a historic city. UNESCO has given it the prestigious Heritage City tag. The name Ahmedabad does not denote a person staying in this city but illustrates a way of life,” said state Congress chief Amit Chavda. Former Union minister and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor also expressed concern over these name changes. “It is being done explicitly to places which are Muslim in origin. What is the message sought to be sent to a community of our own country? That you have less stake in this society. Do they even understand the implications of what they are doing?” he agonised.

Congress legislator Gyasuddin Sheikh who represents Dariapur constituency in Ahmedabad has threatened to launch a stir if the BJP government goes ahead with the move. “It is dirty politics and clearly a move to polarise voters ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,” he asserted.

The VHP, facing an identity crisis in Gujarat after its high-profile international president Dr Pravin Togadia was ousted, was quick to issue a warning to those opposing the renaming of the city. “We hear that some Babur devotees are putting roadblocks. Let them be warned that the Hindus will end their political careers if they persist,” said Ashok Raval, the state VHP chief.

Togadia, who now heads a rival Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad, laments that the BJP has forgotten its poll promise on both Ram Mandir and Karnavati. “It rules from the state to the centre. What prevents it,” he asked.

The Ram Mandir manoeuvres notwithstanding, the Karnavati quest provides an insight into how the Sangh Parivar selects, builds and cleaves society to monopolise political control. All RSS arms work in tandem to contribute to this.

Take the Gujarat case. On November 7, deputy chief minister Nitin Patel used the Faizabad-Ayodhya issue to revive the Karnavati issue from cold storage. “People desire it, but there are legal limitations. If the law on renamings is changed, we are ready,” he said. Two days later, chief minister Vijay Rupani said: “We will take concrete steps towards it after exploring legal and other possibilities.” After two days, the VHP-Bajrang Dal combine welcomed the move and warned those opposing it. With the Congress opposing it, the brickbats had begun in full swing.

Conveniently lost in this deliberately drummed up cacophony are pressing issues that show the Rupani government in less than favourable light. The deepening agrarian crisis has led to 13 farmer suicides in less than three months. A failed suicide attempt was even made at a public meeting of the chief minister and three successful ones. All this took place in Rupani’s own Saurashtra region which is reeling under acute scarcity.

Agriculture has taken a dip. The Cotton Association of India projects a 16 percent output dip to 88 lakh bales in 2018-19 as against 105 lakh bales the previous year. And to add insult to injury, farmers in scarcity-hit Surendranagar district have been notified to repay bank loans within a fortnight or face legal action. The Government of India’s agricultural statistics for 2017 puts the average monthly income of a Gujarat farmer family at Rs 3,573 and states that 43 percent of its 39.31 lakh agricultural households are in debt. The state government’s lone claim to fame is an official panel to probe crop insurance complaints.

Then, there are pressing health issues too. The National Centre for Disease Control rates Gujarat as the third highest in swine flu cases in the country with 63 recorded deaths till November 5. The number of diabetics is up 89 percent from 4.8 per hundred adults in 1990 to 6.8 in 2016. The rise in obesity over the same period is 132 percent.

Economic woes are not far behind either. Gujarat’s public debt was less than Rs 10,000 crore when the BJP first came to power in 1995. This tripled during Narendra Modi’s chief ministership to now rest at Rs 2,17,338 crore (2017-18).

“The dismal state of Gujarat needs distractions like the Sardar statue and the Karnavati controversy,” said former chief minister of the state Suresh Mehta. “It is akin to saying: ‘If you do not have bread, eat cake, keep looking skywards and squabbling among yourselves’.” Mehta was the second BJP chief minister and later quit the party over differences with Modi.

The fact is that the Karnavati controversy is three decades old. Part of an expansion blueprint, it was on the verge of being implemented when the BJP came to power in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. In May 1990, it passed a resolution to this effect. Later, in September 1995, the first BJP government in the state led by Keshubhai Patel passed a similar resolution in the assembly.

The nomination document sent by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to UNESCO in furtherance of its bid for heritage city status, states: “This land (Ahmedabad) was also in proximity to smaller, older existing  settlements (…) as Karnavati.” As per the document, Karnavati was not on the site of the walled city established by Ahmed Shah but on its outskirts in the south-west direction. In the 11th century, the area around present-day Ahmedabad was named Ashavali after a tribal ruler. So why not name the city Ashavali, asked an analyst. But then it would not suit the narrative that the Sangh Parivar wants to build—that of a Rajput warrior who patronised Jainism.

The renaming of Ahmedabad was part of a larger Hindutva project for Gujarat, entrusted to the VHP to begin with. In Ahmedabad, posters had sp­rung up in the eighties stating, “Hindu rashtra ke shehar Karnavati mein apka swagat hai (In the Hindu kingdom’s city of Karnavati, you are welcome.)” Similar signboards came up at the entrance of villages to buttress the Hindu rashtra identity. People were encouraged to walk to famous Hindu shrines on key religious dates. Enroute, villages would welcome them and rest places would serve free snacks and tea. The religious zeal was subsequently monetised electorally in favour of the BJP, leading to its first government in Gujarat in 1995.

The fact is that after the BJP came to power, both in Gujarat and later in Delhi, its prime mover, LK Advani, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi never bothered to raise the issue. It had, for all practical purposes outlived its usefulness when power targets were achieved. However, with the BJP on a shaky wicket viz-a- viz 2019, issues like the Ram Mandir and the Karnavati controversy are stirred up again with clear electoral intentions.

However, the renaming issue has come in for heavy trolling. Even the state bureaucracy, which had worked hard to get Ahmedabad the UNESCO heritage city tag, is unhappy with this political move as it may come with many costs. This clear and inherent danger should be taken into account if the political leadership persists in this naming game.

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