The BJP is confronting a tough battle. Media reports from the state till recently were almost unanimous that the BJP is going to win again. Of late, the same media has begun writing of a close contest.
By Satish Misra
Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is scheduled to vote for a new Assembly on 9 and 14 December. The battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power for almost 22 years, and the Congress is poised for an interestingly crucial and close contest.
The BJP, led from the front by the Prime Minister, has deployed its best possible resources at it command to retain power in a state that has been the laboratory of ‘Hindutva’ and has been presented as a role model for others to follow. The Congress too has put up its best to wrest the initiative from the ruling party.
The results of this Assembly election are significant for both the national parties as they are likely to determine the course of national politics in the years to come. The BJP has been in power since 1995 with a small break of 498 days, when one of its leaders Shankar Sinh Vaghela broke away with his followers from the party to become the Chief Minister in 1997 with the support of the Congress.
Since March 1998, the BJP has been ruling the state, shoving the opposition Congress to almost margins. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had remained the chief minister for 12 years, before taking the charge in New Delhi. He ruled the state like none other, presenting the state to the outside world as a “model of development” that in turn became his USP to put a claim on the Delhi throne.
Since Modi’s moving to New Delhi in May 2014, after ensuring a massive electoral victory for the BJP in the 2014 general elections, Gujarat has seen two chief ministers in Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani. It is pointless to mention that both of them lacked the charisma as well as the shrewd political skills of Modi to keep the anti-incumbency under tight lid.
Woes and problems for the ruling party have further compounded because of the post-Modi state administration’s ill handling of protest movements led by youth leaders Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel who represent the interests of Dalits, OBCs and Pattidars respectively. They are the products of protest movements that erupted in the state since the departure of Modi from the state.
Demonetisation and the introduction of the badly implemented GST have added to the difficulties of the ruling party because the large trading community of the state was unable to cope with the two shocks resulting in both loss of jobs as well as business.
In the backdrop of the rising popular resentment and youth anger, the Congress, out of power in the state for over two decades, sees a chance to stage a comeback. The Congress has been playing its cards cautiously and intelligently. It has been able to rope in the support of Mevani, Thakor and Hardik Patel and has tied up with the breakaway faction of the Janata Dal (U) also to contain division of votes.
In its well thought out electoral strategy, the Congress has been doing a tight ropewalk avoiding the BJP’s trap of being projected in the popular mind as pro-Muslim. With this purpose in mind, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has been paying visits to temples during his campaign. It is even taking the risk of being a culprit of abandoning secularism and playing “soft Hinduatva” card.
The Congress received a boost to its prospects in August this year when its leader Ahmed Patel managed to win the Rajya Sabha seat from the state, thwarting the best-laid plan of BJP president Amit Shah. Shah, who had engineered a rebellion in the Congress ranks by weaning away 11 of its MLAs to vote against Patel, had to swallow his pride as the latter scrapped through the election.
At the same time, the rebellion led by former chief minister Vaghela also helped in cleansing the State Congress of factionalism and presenting a unified image before the electorate.
Another factor that has added to the weight of the Congress’ electoral prospects is a change in the public perception of Rahul Gandhi, who has been drawing impressive crowds in his rallies, meetings and roadshows during his trips to the state in the last three months. Rahul Gandhi, who was an object of ridicule and was the target of the RSS-BJP and the social media, is now being seen as a serious political player by not only his well-wishers but even by his opponents.
The vitriolic attacks on Rahul Gandhi by BJP leaders was reflective of the threat that Gandhi seems to be posing now. Almost every leader of the BJP has been trying to belittle Gandhi who is going to take over the reins of the country’s main opposition party in next few days. One spokesperson even went to the extent of comparing him with Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and monarch Alauddin Khilji. Prime Minister decried young Gandhi’s elevation to the party’s top post, calling the change as dawning of “Aurangzeb Raj”. (Aurangzeb was one of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1857. He was highly religious and has been projected by pro-Hindutva forces as a tyrant though a large majority of historians hold a contrary view)
Sensing the growing challenge, Modi and Shah have been marshalling all the resources at their command and using every trick up their sleeves to retain power. First, the party in power ensured that the election date of the state were decoupled from that of Himachal Pradesh (where assembly elections were held on 9 November) though the results of both states will be declared on the same date.
The sharpening of communal fault lines in the state by overt and covert campaigns by the ruling party is also on evidence. Controversies like the one on film Padmavati are being stoked and sustained. The state administration has declared a ban on the showing of the film, even before the film is to be cleared by the country’s Censor Board.
Taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Ayodhya case on 5 December and lawyer and Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s submission in court, Modi and Shah have accused the Congress of linking the Ram temple to 2019 Lok Sabha election. Shah also asked Rahul Gandhi to clarify his stand on the Ram temple issue.
BJP leaders, in their campaigns, have been eluding to Muslim rule and stoking fear among the majority Hindu community by subtly suggesting that return of the Congress to power will embolden Muslim rogue elements.
Anticipating a tough contest, Modi has been visiting the state for the last six months at regular intervals, launching projects and laying foundation stones of various schemes to woo the electorate. In next few days, until the campaigning for the two-phased poll comes to an end on 7 and 12 December, Modi is going to address two dozen rallies. Almost every cabinet minister and majority of the chief ministers of the BJP-ruled states have been asked by the Prime Minister to visit Gujarat for campaigning and on-the-spot firefighting. Over three dozen ministers have been on the campaign in the state.
Undoubtedly, the BJP is confronting a tough battle. Media reports from the state till recently were almost unanimous that the BJP is going to win again, on its organisational strengths as well as the Prime Minister’s sway and popularity on the electorate. But of late, the same media has begun writing of a close contest.
In the last assembly elections in 2012, the BJP had won 117 seats, securing 47.90 per cent votes while the Congress had got 60 seats, with 38.90 percent of votes — a difference of 9 per cent between the two parties.
Theoretically, a swing of five per cent votes in favour of the Congress shall tilt the balance. But will it happen this election is a billion dollar question. One of the latest opinion polls, published on 5 December, showed the vote share of the BJP and the Congress at 43 per cent each with 14 per cent votes going to other smaller parties and independents. The BJP’s votes share has been coming down in successive poll surveys in the last few months.
The contest is undoubtedly close. And the outcome can go either way on 18 December when results are announced.