As fates of candidates for the 182 assembly seats are now sealed in the electronic voting machines after the end of the final phase of Gujarat elections on December 14, almost all exit polls are showing majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party. As one waits for the result day, December 18, Gujarat elections this time can be summarized as the prestige battle for the BJP, and a matter of survival for the Congress in the political horizon of the country.
So much importance has been attached to Gujarat that the state elections in Himachal Pradesh that coincided with Gujarat, has failed to attract media attention. Exit polls suggest a Congress defeat in Himachal – one of the five states where it is in power at present. However, Gujarat has become crucial because an upset win there or for that matter even a close fight there has the potential of catapulting the party to galvanise its workers before the crucial elections in Karnataka next year, where it is in power, and thereafter, the 2019 general elections. The reasons are quite understandable:
1. Gujarat is the home state of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Even the third most important leader in the union government, Arun Jaitley is a voter in Gujarat. A setback to the party in a state where it has been in power for the last 22 years, could considerably weaken its position in national politics.
2. It was the ‘Gujarat Model’ of governance that Prime Minister Modi extoled and promised to implement in India while campaigning during the last general elections. A defeat in Gujarat would mean the Gujarati people rejecting this model that Modi had so vigorously sold to the nation in 2014 to win the elections for his party and become the Prime Minister.
3. A tough fight here would resurrect the image of the newly anointed president of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, from a weak leader to a fighter.
No doubt the outcome of the Gujarat elections would shape the future political course of the country and given this fact, both the Congress and the BJP had gone all out in Gujarat. Just consider that more than anything else, the elections in the state became a personal battleground for both Modi and Rahul who led the charge for their respective parties. Their involvement could be gauged by the fact that between October 12 and December 12, Modi covered 32201.1 km for campaigning in Gujarat while Rahul covered 24099.4 km for campaigning in the state. On the last day of campaigning on December 12 alone, these leaders travelled a distance of 2043.6 km and 1894 km respectively.
While the BJP fought anti-incumbency, the Congress had to find its foothold in a state where it had lost its support base and was in the grip of bitter infighting. Just a few months before the elections, its leader Shankarsinh Vaghela, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the Gujarat House then, had quit the party alongwith eight other MLAs. The leadership crisis in the state Congress, with no CM face around, the BJP raked up the name of Ahmed Patel as a likely Congress CM face, ostensibly to polarize the Hindu voters. What was more curious was Vaghela’s support to some of the BJP leaders against whom his newly floated political outfit did not field any candidate.
With no CM face to project, the Congress’ import of OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, and its support to dalit leader Jignesh Mevani as well as its pact with Patidar leader Hardik Patel made many heads turn. Many saw it as the Congress’s attempts to revive its KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) theory that had helped the party retain power in the state in the 1980s. Yet the twist in the tale this time was the pact with Hardik – A development which has made many sit and take note of because Hardik belongs to the influential Patel community which has a major say in electoral politics of the BJP in the state. All the three – Alpesh, Jignesh and Hardik represent a young generation of politicians in the state and the election is also a make or break for them too. There is much of resentment even within the Congress party rank over these ‘imported’ leaders.
While on papers the BJP stuck to its Development Plank, the Congress largely focused on Patels, farmers and issues pertaining to youths.
Considering the intensity of the contest in the state, it was only expected that all the tricks of the trade would be used and it did happen so. Consider the leaked sex video tapes of Hardik or the video clips of Mevani where he purportedly said that if he had two sisters, he would have married one to a Hindu and one to a Muslim.
Both the Congress and the BJP left no stone unturned to be one up on each other — From the decision of the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs to put off the winter session of Parliament till campaigning ended in Gujarat, to the Congress adopting soft-Hindutva to counter the BJP’s Hindutva in communally sensitive Gujarat; from Rahul visiting temples to Modi violating VIP safety norms by taking off on a seaplane on the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to showcase development. Even Rahul’s religion was questioned after his visit to the Somnath temple!
There were many issues touched upon and targeted as well. Initially the Congress attacked the BJP over the issue of GST and Demonetisation prompting the GST Council headed by finance minister Jaitley, hurrying up to roll out bunch of reliefs to neutralize the Congress’s campaign.
Not surprising that in an era when political campaigning continue to hit new low every day, verbal abuses, invectives and allegations did fly this time too. While Rahul kept on attacking Modi for attacking the former at personal levels, Congress leader Manishankar Aiyar breached his brief and call Modi ‘neech’, taking the entire campaign to a new level of mudslinging. Thus an arrow in the BJP’s quiver was Modi’s conspiracy theory about Pakistan trying to pull the BJP down in Gujarat with the help of the Congress party. He went on to name former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and former Vice President Hamid Ansari besides Aiyar, to be the Congress actors in this ploy of Pakistan. The issue is not dead yet.
Last but not the least! This was an election where EVMs became a suspect. The Congress claimed them to be doctored to favour the BJP. A day after all the exit polls predicted a BJP win, the Gujarat state Congress even went on to move the Supreme Court alleging rigging of EVMs but their plea was rejected by the apex court.
The election campaigning this time exposed the inherent caste-division that prevails in Gujarat. Throughout the BJP regime in the state, it had tried to put it under cover by playing the communal card. The Congress’s attempts to play the caste card by reviving the KHAM however, exposes that Gujarat is no different than Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where caste plays an important role in elections. Even Modi too got into this caste war when in his election rally in Jasdan in Rajkot district he accused the Congress of conspiring to throw four Patel Chief Ministers out of power in the past. His critics though accused him of misrepresenting the facts. It may be mentioned that so far Gujarat has seen only four Patel CMs — Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, Chimanbhai Patel, Keshubhai Patel and the first woman CM Anandiben Patel.
The second most crucial was the ever reducing clout of the Muslims in Gujarat politics. While the BJP did not field any Muslim candidate, the Congress too, in an attempt to woo the Hindus through its newly invented soft-Hindutva which made Jaitley term the Congress as a BJP ‘clone’, fielded only five Muslim candidates this time. This was same as in 2012 too when the Congress for the first time, though unsuccessfully, had flirted with the idea of soft-Hindutva in Gujarat. At that time only two Muslims had entered the Gujarat House.
To sum up, it is clear that the Gujarat verdict will redefine the national politics as the final outcome will be as crucial to Modi as it will be to Rahul. Both these leaders’ political prospects hinges on the verdict.
*The writer is a senior journalist
Courtesy Marathi Daily Pudhari