By Deepak Parvatiyar*
Ahmedabad: All eyes are on Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah, where elections are to be held in two phases on December 9 and 14.
Eversince the Bharatiya Janata Party formed its first ever majority government in Gujarat in 1995, it has comfortably won all state assembly elections since then – its lowest tally in the 182-member Gujarat House has never gone below 115 (in 2012). However, even then it became 117 after the Gujarat Parivartan Party (which had 2 MLAs) merged with the BJP.
In comparison, the Congress Party crossed the 60 figure only once, (61 in 2012), during this period since 1995. Its downslide continued to an unprecedented level when in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it could not win a single seat while the BJP made history by winning all the 26 Parliament seats from the state. Moreover, in August this year, 13 of its members either quit the party or were expelled after Shankersinh Vaghela’s rebellion in August. Vaghela’s new political outfit, Jan Vikalp, as well as other minor players such as the Aam Aadmi Party, which indicates contesting 10-11 seats, could well influence the final outcome. As it is, the contests in the state for long have been largely bi-polar in nature – a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress.
Things have much changed in the state after 2014 after Narendra Modi, who had won three successive terms as chief minister since 2002, left Gandhinagar and moved to New Delhi following his elevation as the country’s 15th Prime Minister. Notwithstanding the BJP’s impressive run in state elections post 2014, the last being an impressive victory in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 312 of the 403 seats earlier this year, and which prompted the BJP president Amit Shah, setting a target of 150 seats in Gujarat, it may not be a cakewalk for the BJP in Gujarat this time because of a number of factors. Consider a few points:
— None would dispute that Modi’s successors, Anandiben Patel and thereafter her replacement, Vijay Rupani, lack his stature.
— The post-Modi era State BJP grapples with the problem of infighting. Political observers argue that the Patidar agitation that unseated Anandiben, too was from within the BJP to get rid of a patidar CM (Anandiben) but it went out of control.
— The sudden and rapid rise of three youngsters — Patidar leader Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani – is perceived to divide the voters along caste lines. While Thakore has already joined the Congress, the other two leaders have kept everyone guessing. The latest sex CD of Hardik that the latter has termed as fake and alleged the BJP to be behind it, has added a new twist to the elections.
— The outcome of the local self government elections in the state in 2015, where the Congress swept the rural and semi rural areas, too is a cause of concern for the BJP. The only solace was that the BJP’s urban vote bank though suffering erosion, held ground and that the party could win all the six municipal corporations– Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar.
— The lukewarm response to the BJP’s Narmada and Gaurav yatras that the party undertook in the run up to the state elections too has added to the BJP’s problems.
So can political equations change in 2017? Looking back at the state’s history, it was the Congress Party, whose number came down drastically from 149 in 1985 to mere 33 in 1990! At that time the Janata Dal had led the pack with 70 seats followed by the BJP with 67.
This time though, analysts point at the large gatherings at the public meetings of the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhi scion has criss-crossed the state in the last one-month as part of ‘Gujarat Navsarjan Yatra’. He has been trying to build a direct rapport with the voters. He has been mixing with the crowd, changing into jeans and t-shirt, posing for selfies with youngsters, eating in roadside dhabas. Recently he even rode a bullock cart in Saurashtra region when the authorities denied him permission to use an open vehicle on the pretext of being a security risk. Besides, in an obvious bid to placate the Hindu voters, he has been visiting temples and religious shrines. He started his Saurashtra campaign after offering prayers in Dwarka. He even climbed to the Chotila temple at the peak of a mountain in Saurashtra and also visited the famous Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, which has a massive Patel following.
Making every effort to exploit the incumbency factor, he has been raising issues such farmers suicides, rising joblessness. Besides, he has been trying to rake up support for his criticism of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The two, he claims, have stifled growth and created hardship for the people. He has termed GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’, not to mention that Gabbar Singh was the name of the dreaded dacoit of blockbuster Hindi film of the yore, Sholay. His strategy seemed working as many representatives from the small and medium scale industrial units complained about the GST to him during his free-wheeling interaction with them in Surat, a city known for its diamond and textiles industry and which provides employment to over a million migrant workers from across the country. But this was before the GST norms were relaxed. Prior to the relaxation, as evident from the visit of former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to Ahmedabad, where he criticized demonetization and GST among other things, the Congress had left no stone unturned in its attempt to exploit GST and demonetization for electoral gains. But now, particularly after the GST council’s major relief to the people by bringing down many items to lower tax brackets in GST last week, can raking up the GST be helpful to the Congress? Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has hit back stating that the relaxations in the GST showed that the government was “listening to the people”.
Obviously the BJP cannot be a termed a pushover at all, given that both the Prime Minister as well as the party president are from Gujarat. Obviously Modi and Shah have high stakes here. Many political pundits also link it to the Gujarati pride. Shah himself is camping in Gujarat and has opted for door-to-door canvassing. Modi too is expected to address over 30 election rallies in the state. Before the code of conduct came into force, the Prime Minister had already taken steps to woo the voters of his home state. He inaugurated RO-RO ferry service, medical college and hospital, Indo-Japan investment summits and laid the foundation stones for Rs one lakh crore bullet train,multi crore Rajkot airport, irrigation schemes, and so on. As it is, the BJP’s poll plank is development and nationalism. Given that his prestige is involved, it is obvious that Modi will go all out to prove to all that the Gujarat Model still works. But one thing is clear. He is leading from the front.
*The writer is a senior journalist
(Article courtesy Marathi Daily Pudhari)