The campaign for the Gujarat Assembly elections has ended, with both the BJP and the Congress firing pot-shots at each other like never before. What has separated this election from earlier contests is the ferocity with which the two sides combated each other. Buoyed by the support of youth leader Hardik Patel, who spearheaded a movement of the Patidars for reservations, and two other sectional youth leaders — Alpesh Thakor from the powerful other backward classes (OBC) community and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani – the Congress had no qualms in playing a brazenly casteist game to take on the challenge of the BJP, which until then seemed unbeatable.
When the results come out on Monday, December 18, it would be known to what extent the BJP citadel has been breached by youth power. If the Congress does well and improves its vote share substantially, it would be in no small measure due to the strength of appeal of these young people.
As for the Congress itself, it is as lacklustre in Gujarat as earlier, with no one from the State worth donning the mantle of leader. There is neither any traction in the existing State leadership nor any leader with charisma outside the three youth leaders who are extending support to it.
The BJP had an undisputed mass leader in Narendra Modi who rode the political scene like a colossus while he ruled the State as chief minister, winning election after election until he moved to Delhi to sit on the prime ministerial gaddi. Neither Modi’s successor in Gujarat Anandiben Patel nor the current chief minister Vijay Rupani have had any semblance of mass appeal. Rupani takes directions from national party president Amit Shah and has no independent voice. There are doubts being expressed about his ability to win even his own assembly seat.
The employment situation in Gujarat has deteriorated with government jobs in acute short supply and not much industry coming up in recent times. There is frustration among youth because demonetisation of high currency notes has disturbed the parallel economy and made life difficult, especially in the rural areas, where the cash economy was thriving.
The small traders have been hit hard by GST. Though there is some mitigation, there is no doubt that in the short run, there are difficulties which are forcing small units to flounder. Corruption, which was much reduced during Modi’s time, has reared its ugly head again with virulence. That despite all this Modi’s charisma is largely intact speaks volumes of his personal grip over things when he was at the helm.
If Modi’s men fail to repeat the success of the past 22 years of BJP rule in the current context, it would be a reflection on current BJP rule. If they still manage to retain power, it would be in no small measure due to the low credibility of the Congress, which continues to be uninspiring with no leader worth the name at the local level.
The Congress narrative has failed to capture the hearts of the people and youth power has landed into the Congress lap without any serious effort. This youth power has been bolstered by an anti-incumbency sentiment due to a plethora of problems with the State BJP’s governance.
Predictably, the BJP’s fortunes have seemingly improved in the dying stages of campaigning thanks to some blunders by Congress leaders. First, it was the controversial Modi-baiting nominated MP from Tamil Nadu, Mani Shankar Aiyar who disturbed a hornet’s nest by calling Prime Minister Modi a ‘neech aadmi’ (a despicable man which Modi cleverly interpreted as a dig at his low caste).
The Congress acted with rare alacrity and suspended Aiyar from primary membership as a way of placating Gujaratis, who hold Modi in high regard. Rahul Gandhi pretended to be outraged and for form’s sake called upon his party men to desist from demeaning the office of prime minister.
Then broke the controversy over a Kashmiri politician Salman Nizami questioning the parentage of the prime minister. It so turned out that Salman, a man with dubious credentials, accused of voicing anti-India feelings, was invited by the Congress party to campaign among Muslims in Gujarat.
This had hardly abated when a dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar in New Delhi, at which a Pakistani delegation was entertained along with former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari, besides others, touched some raw nerves including that of Modi.
Dr Singh lashed out at the prime minister while seeing nothing wrong in participating in a dinner with the Pakistan High Commissioner, a former foreign minister of Pakistan and some others at a time when India is seeking to get Pakistan to the negotiating table on our terms.
Though, these three instances tarred the image of the Congress and gave the BJP something to tom-tom about, what impact they would have on the election results, is in the realm of speculation.
The die is indeed cast for the ballot boxes to reveal what lies hidden inside. No one denies that this is a crucial battle.
Rahul Gandhi has been scarred by many battles. Will he redeem himself to some extent this time around? Will the support of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh give the Congress a boost that its own leaders were not able to give it?
Will the Modi charisma hold as it has consistently held or would the lacklustre performance of the Vijay Rupani government prove too much for Modi to ward off?
These are questions that will be answered as the results pour in on the 18th. The Gujarat electorate waits with bated breath. So intense has been the focus on Gujarat that the Himachal election is largely forgotten.
The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.