The Rs 1.10 lakh crore bullet train, which is slated to make its first run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai only in 2022, is the ruling BJP’s ballot train for the 2017 Gujarat elections due three months from now.
There is no other reason that could account for the undue haste with which the entire two-day visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife to Ahmedabad on September 13-14 was sought to be pushed through riding roughshod over popular sensibilities.
The Congress opposition termed it as an election bullet train, which was economically unviable. Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections are due this December and the ruling BJP is pulling out all stops ‘campaigning’ at government cost before elections are declared and the code of conduct bars it from self-promotional spending.
The bullet train, which seeks to cut down travel time between Ahmedabad and Mumbai from seven hours to less than three, at the moment hangs in a limbo.
Some noises continue to be made in Ahmedabad but the land acquisition process is nowhere near beginning in Mumbai. It is still a drawing board project so far though it is considered as the swan song project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
From his chief ministerial days, he is known to be very particular about ‘shubh mahurats or auspicious timings as ordained by the Hindu calendar. This practice has been duly carried out, not only when he takes the oath of office but also in the opening launch of election campaigns.
However, the foundation stone laying ceremony of a project, which the Modi government considers as one of its milestone projects, was laid on September 14 in what is known as the ‘kamurta’ in Gujarati. By and large, no new work is begun by the Hindu calendar during this ‘Shraddha paksh” or the inauspicious period, this being reserved for after September 20 when the Navratri period sets in. In fact, the bullet train project is like the Ahmedabad metro rail project, which was projected by the then chief minister to win three state assembly elections.
The chief minister is now the prime minister but the metro train is yet to start running. Hectic efforts are afoot to ensure that it can be inaugurated on even a small stretch before the polls kick in three months from now.
However, in this particular case, electoral compulsions seem to have preceded other considerations. Unmindful of popular sentiments, which oscillate between abject disappointment and incipient rage after a rain onslaught turned Ahmedabad roads into a potholed mess.
Even as tempers ran high over the slackness of the BJP controlled municipal corporation in dealing with it, came news of the impending visit of the Japanese Prime Minister and Gujarat’s own Narendra Modi. The lethargic administration turned into a lithe body flexing its sinuous frame, working on the roads the two prime ministers would take in Ahmedabad. Both north and south Gujarat had been badly battered by a flood havoc and Prime Minister Modi had himself visited the state to take stock of the situation.
However, once the visit of the foreign dignitary was announced, everything receded into the background and the government went to work to reap a political harvest with the ensuing elections in mind.” The money so spent would be better and more gainfully spent for modernising the fraying Indian railway’s network where accidents have become the order of the day under the NDA government.
Both state capital Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad were lit up with fluorescent lights and the 9 km long road show from the airport to the Sabarmati ashram had the administration put up 28 cultural platforms. Clearly, elections were playing on the Prime Minister’s mind, when he chose to himself chaperone the Japanese Prime Minister to the 16th century Sidi Saiyed mosque on the first day of his visit.
This is perhaps his first visit to the mosque and the Prime Minister acquainted himself well with its history before playing the guide to his Japanese counterpart. In fact, the visit was preponed by almost 45 minutes to avoid a clash with the magrib namaz. Only a group of pre-selected 22 people were allowed to attend the namaz after the high-profile visitors left. Clearly, the managerial brass of the mosque was conspicuous by their absence at the event.
The mosque and its famous lattice window depicting the tree of life is the most remembered symbol of Ahmedabad and played no mean a role in UNESCO declaring Ahmedabad a World heritage city this July. Interpreted politically, while the Prime Minister would like to savour this relationship for global image building but would shun a close connect for domestic consumption that would annoy the hardline Hindu vote bank.
The ruling BJP has been loud about the Hindu, Jain connect of Ahmedabad but has played down its syncretic legacy. During his 2011 sadbhavana fast when the then chief minister Modi was seeking an image makeover as a preparatory move for his prime ministerial bid to follow later, he had refused to wear a skull cap offered by a Muslim cleric. The polls weigh heavy now as well.