There is no mistaking the fact that the Gujarat assembly elections this time around have assumed huge importance as a barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sustained popularity. They will determine whether the Modi magic is still holding in his citadel or, as it happens, it is waning under the weight of anti-incumbency after two decades of BJP sway.
The Congress charge that the Gujarat polling dates were not announced along with Himachal because the BJP is looking at more sops for voters in Gujarat before the Election Commission’s model code of conduct comes into force can hardly be brushed aside. The commission has indeed not come up with a credible explanation as to why the Gujarat poll announcement has still not been made. The BJP is somewhat nervous this time and wants to leave no stone unturned in trying to notch up a historic fourth successive win. Impartial observers still think the BJP would come through but it may well face a challenge that might even be stiff.
This is despite the fact that the Congress is a depleted force and is devoid of a worthy leader in Gujarat after the exit of Shankar Sinh Vaghela, an erstwhile BJP leader who quit the party in the wake of a fight with Modi only to break with the Congress too recently when he was not promised pole position. A retinue of a dozen legislators left the Congress along with Vaghela.
The BJP’s anti-incumbency baggage has been compounded by a groundswell of discontent over the treatment of Dalits, the goods and services tax (GST) uncertainties which have hit the traders hard in a State where this section has been the backbone of the BJP establishment and demands for job reservations sparked off by Hardik Patel’s ‘quotas for Patidars’ agitation which has received tacit support from the Congress.
Yet, despite the Congress being in disarray, and despite the limitations of Rahul Gandhi as the Central party boss, the BJP will have to strive hard to win the battle convincingly. It still seems to have a decisive edge but can ill afford to rest on its laurels. The BJP top brass is banking on Modi’s substantial work in Gujarat over the years and his undoubted charisma, and justifiably so. There would indeed be no stopping Modi if he comes out triumphant in Gujarat. In fact, if he comes through, the Rahul bastion in Amethi and the Rae Bareli citadel of Sonia Gandh in Rae Bareli will be under serious threat of falling to BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. That underlines the extent of the challenge to the Gandhis of the BJP doing well in Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi may be drawing fairly big crowds to his public meetings in the State but the more speeches he makes the more he exposes himself and his lack of understanding of issues. The Congress supporters are bewildered and there is no State leadership worth the name.
It bespeaks of BJP’s doggedness that its cadres have been working assiduously in their constituencies while Congress legislators are confused and largely directionless.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) challenge seemed to hold promise of starting with a bang but has already ended with a whimper. The Patidars and the Dalits may have pockets of influence but it is debatable if they would pose a challenge to a well-entrenched BJP. The only hope for the Congress is if there is a negative vote against the BJP in which case the voter may be so fed up that he would not bother who is the hated party’s adversary. Such voting phenomenon has happened in the past but something appallingly wrong has to be done by the party to evoke such extreme anathema.
In power at the Centre, the BJP can no more appeal to the “Gujarati asmita” against the powerful Centre – the way it did earlier when the UPA was at the Centre. It has to find a new, effective plank which is saleable. Recently, with victory in Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar, the BJP not only won all big municipal corporations but also captured 40 of 56 municipal corporations in small towns. With 67 urban and 20 semi-urban Assembly seats in an Assembly of 182, victory in the state still looks somewhat of an uphill task for the Congress. The Congress did much better in the panchayat elections winning 23 of 31 district panchayats and 113 of 193 panchayats. Unless it takes concrete steps to win back the voters in the rural hinterland, the BJP could find the going tough in the rural areas. There can be little doubt that the farmers in Gujarat are smarting under the weight of demonetization. But the Modi government is straining every nerve to win them back to the BJP’s fold with the advantage of incumbency.
The Congress morale was at its lowest ebb when Vaghela left the party but the victory of Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha polls despite the BJP and Vaghela’s men voting in unison has revived the hopes of Congress supporters.
The Congress has traditionally banked on its KHAM arithmetic – Kshatriya, Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi (tribal) and Muslim – whereas the BJP with the Patels solidly behind it always emerged victorious. Will the BJP this time be able to hold its own among the Patels is a moot question on everyone’s lips in Gujarat. There is a new sense of anticipation in the poll-bound state as it prepares to go to polls this time around amidst conflicting signals.
The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.