With the Election Commission announcing the Gujarat Assembly polls on October 25, scheduled to be held in two phases on December 9 and 14, decks have been cleared for a high-octane electoral tussle between the two main contenders for power ‚ÄĒ the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress ‚ÄĒ in Prime Minister Narendra Modi‚Äôs home state whose outcome may impact the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Prior to October 25, the election watchdog had been facing criticism for not announcing these dates along with the schedule for Himachal Pradesh earlier this month. It was alleged by Opposition parties that delay in announcing poll dates was deliberate to help the ruling BJP to sidestep rules and offer incentives to voters in the state.
The vote is seen as a barometer of support for PM Modi at a time when a sputtering economy has handed the Congress a possible opening to regain political ground. One expert has opined that in the wake of political tempers running high, the ruling BJP, which is facing anti-incumbency, finds itself on the back foot, and on the other hand, the opposition Congress finds itself oscillating between enthusiasm and euphoria; while the first motivates one to perform better, the other leads to a false sense of complacency.
BJP‚Äôs Gambit Assembly polls in Gujarat have become a prestige fight for the BJP, which has ruled the state for two decades but is facing its toughest battle in years. Apart from battling anti-incumbency, the BJP is facing the trading community‚Äôs ire over demonetization and GST along with possible desertion by the Patel community, which is angry over not being given quotas in jobs and education. The Dalit population is also alienated over a string of alleged atrocities. It will be interesting to watch if the recent controversy over Amit Shah‚Äôs son has any penetration or weight with voters.
In the wake of media reports about traders being miffed with the manner of rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), some observers don‚Äôt rule out the possibility of trading community‚Äôs backlash stopping the saffron party‚Äôs victory march in it tracks. In fact, the anti-GST sentiments in the state is one of the issues that the Congress is using to its advantage; Rahul Gandhi has described it as the ‚ÄėGabbar Singh Tax.‚Äô Stating that the GST in its present form was not what Congress had conceived, Rahul said the Modi dispensation went ahead with it despite his party warning the government about its adverse impact.
As an antidote to GST backlash, Modi government at the Centre and ruling BJP government in the state have announced a slew of sops. Projects for Gujarat announced by PM Modi range from bullet train project, ferry service between Ghogha and Dahej, a city command and control centre to a transport hub. The state government has announced a slew of sops for teachers, employees of municipalities and others. Some experts view these announcements of policy measures squarely aimed at easing any discomfort.
Some political pundits aver that Modi had made similar promises in Bihar and elsewhere during state assembly polls which have remained unfulfilled thus far. While pointing out that in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP promised 10 million jobs if voted to power. The pundits caution that these promises could return to haunt the BJP in 2019, with jobs still at a premium and growth rate falling to 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2017-18.
The Congress camp is enthused over its good prospects in the ensuing assembly polls, especially in the wake of trading community‚Äôs angst, Patel community‚Äôs disenchantment and alienation of Dalits. One expert has opined that winning a state like Gujarat requires strong local leadership, something the Congress lacks. However, other experts point towards enlivened campaigns of Rahul Gandhi and the surging crowds in his rallies, which may help Congress reap good dividends.
Attention is also drawn by some experts towards Rahul Gandhi‚Äôs Navsarjan Yatra ‚ÄĒ he has been travelling through BJP-ruled Gujarat and questioning the state‚Äôs much vaunted development model that has looked tattered in recent times ‚Äď which has exceeded expectations and elicited good response from the natives. In some of his rallies, Rahul Gandhi began his speeches with Jai Mataji, Jai Bhim and Jai Sardar to appeal Thakors, Dalits and Patidars, respectively.
According to one expert, Rahul‚Äôs visits to Gujarat have been flavoured by a good mix of political ‚Äėherbs,‚Äô and garnished with a dash of religious ‚Äėspices‚Äô to get the right anti-Modi taste. He has been stirring the right chords ‚ÄĒ paying obeisance at Dwarka and Chotila, dwelling on unemployment amongst the youth, the rising suicides amongst farmers, the issue of Shah‚Äôs son which shot to headlines and the like. Congress is further bolstered by the lukewarm response to BJP‚Äôs poll forays in the public domain. The Congress has also woken up to the social media game, and for the first time in years, is creating counter narratives on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
However, some critics point to the weak organizational network of the Congress and its inability to create a younger generation of leaders from backward communities, the OBC groups in particular, which the BJP is systematically wooing. Besides, they also argue that the tale for the Congress in Gujarat can be different only if they have a cohesive campaign, field the right candidates and find the right combination of communities within the state to target.
Patidar & Dalit factors
Patidars and Dalits have come to play a decisive role in the outcome of Gujarat assembly elections. The BJP‚Äôs euphoria, which was at its zenith when two of Hardik Patel‚Äôs key aides joined the party, evaporated within less than 48 hours when a number of young Patidar leaders snapped ties with the BJP amid allegations of bribery.
Another jolt to the BJP was provided by OBC leader Alpesh Thakore joining Congress. While conceding that Patidars and Dalits supporting the Congress party might dent the BJP‚Äôs electoral prospects, a couple of experts point out that it‚Äôs not enough to upset the ruling party‚Äôs applecart in this election ‚ÄĒ which is being seen as a mega prestige battle for the mighty Modi-Shah combine. However, other experts disagree with this surmise by asserting that in case Patidars and Dalits vote en masse for the Congress, the scenario would be entirely different.
An opinion poll conducted by India Today ‚ÄĒ Axis My India between September 15 and October 15 in all 182 constituencies of Gujarat predicts that the BJP is ‚Äúprojected to win‚ÄĚ at least 115-125 seats. Congress, the principal opposition in the western state, is projected to bag between 57-65 seats. According to the survey, the BJP tally could be better than the 2012 results. Both Congress and BJP are sanguine of reaping good electoral harvest. The Congress considers the 2015 local self-government elections held in the backdrop of the Patidar stir as the turning point and the BJP won the municipal corporations of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar. While contending that a 9 per cent vote difference (47.9 per cent to the BJP and 38.9 per cent to the Congress) separated the two opponents in 2012, some critics assert that whereas BJP can be expected to dominate the urban seats, a swing towards the Congress in the rural areas can bring the Congress at par, or even give it a marginal edge. But in the final reckoning, 40 or 45 seats that can swing either way will hold the key to who rules in Gandhinagar.