There has been no election since 2014 which was so critical and so keenly watched than the ensuing elections to the Gujarat Assembly, not even the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and surely the most significant electoral battle before the next general elections in 2019.
The outcome of this poll is bound to pave the way for the results of the all-important elections a year and a half away. Not only are the Assembly elections taking place in the Home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah but also because these are going to be the first real test for the Modi Government after the combined impact of demonetisation and GST. Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh were held shortly after demonetisation and most people felt that a little discomfort was fine for a temporary period and that the measure would help growth of economy.
The elections in Gujarat are the first after the rollout of GST. The combined impact of demonetisation and GST would be put to test in the state. Gujaratis are more into trade and business than any other community as a whole and, perhaps, the worst affected.
No wonder Modi and Amit Shah, besides the entire top leadership of the party, is sparing no effort to win the elections as they know that they are up against several odds.
BJP has been in power for well over two decades and Modi had led the party to a hat trick of victories as chief minister. The partyâ€™s victory in the previous elections in 2012 was the stepping stone for Modi towards the post of prime minister even though some â€˜opinion pollsâ€™ had predicted his defeat. This time round most â€˜opinion pollsâ€™ have predicted victory but some of the party leaders are not too sure.
The factor of anti incumbency, which Modi as chief minister had defied so successfully, is something that canâ€™t be glossed over. Particularly because Modi himself is not in the race to be the chief minister. The long reign of the party would have certainly antagonised some sections of society and leaders.
No wonder leaders of the Patel or Patidar community, Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes are up in arms and have declared that they shall not vote for the BJP.
The fact that the BJP had been trying not to lose ground after Modiâ€™s elevation as Prime Minister is reflected in the move of the party to replace its chief minister Anandiben Patel during the run up to the elections. Unfortunately for the party, the new chief minister, Vijay Rupani, is also not considered a good administrator. He is considered a light weight with little grassroots support who is just not fitting into the large shoes of Modi.
The long rule of the BJP has also led to another factor: BJP leaders have distanced themselves from the common man and have become inaccessible. Though this factor had emerged during Modiâ€™s rule, it was somehow acceptable for the people but even junior ministers playing truant is something that is not relished by the voters.
While the combined adverse impact of demonetisation and GST is not expected to make much difference in Himachal Pradesh, which is also going to polls with Gujarat, it is bound to make a major impact in Gujarat because of its huge trading community. The state had witnessed protests and the trading community had â€˜bannedâ€™ the entry of BJP leaders in some areas. Videos are in circulation where BJP leaders were forced to exit from public rallies.
Yet, unfortunately for the Congress, which is one of the two main contenders for power in the state, there is not much to attract the voters. Over the last two decades its cadres have thinned out and there is a vacuum as far as senior leadership is concerned. The party has so far not projected any leader as its chief ministerial candidate.
Worse, it is seen as seeking to come to power on the crutches of various sections like the Patidars, the Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. Even in the case of Patidars led by the young leader Hardik Patel, the party is yet to take a decision on meeting their demands. Therefore, even he has not extended his support to the Congress yet. Even if eventually he does extend support to Congress, much damage would have been caused due to dilly dallying on the issue.
With an aim to inflict the maximum damage to the BJP, and put it on the defensive, the Congress has been making concerted attempts for an improved performance in the state. Partyâ€™s Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who is seeking to make a mark in Gujarat before he takes over the mantle of the party from his mother, is concentrating on Gujarat. In fact he addressed fewer rallies in Himachal Pradesh than even Modi and has been extensively touring Gujarat.
A good indicator for the Congress is that a large number of prospective candidates are queuing up to get party tickets. It clearly shows that they are confident that the party would do well. On the flip side, however, the Congress has a rebellion at hand because all those who are denied party ticket are likely to combine against the partyâ€™s official candidate.
As BJP chief Amit Shah has demonstrated, he is an astute strategist and had been working hard to strengthen the party at the grassroots level. The party is likely to change a large number of candidates to offset the impact of anti-incumbency factor. It is particularly likely to bring in young Patidars to contest the elections.
Shah has been extensively touring the state and is credited with setting up booth level committees to keep in touch with the voters. Even at the booth level, there are party volunteers incharge of micro level colonies. He has ensured that the party has last mile connectivity. This is where the Congress would find itself lacking. It lacks a structured organisational set up in the state and may find it difficult to even get volunteers to man the booths.
It must also be conceded that the BJP under Modi had done commendable work in the state. What else explains the party winning elections consistently. Unlike West Bengal, where the Left Front ruled for a quarter of a century, the BJP is not known to have employed strong arm methods. Yes it has been accused of communalism and division of society but it can take pride in development of infrastructure and attracting industry. There has been no slowdown since Modi left for the Centre. In fact Modi has been rather generous to his home state. Inauguration of Narmada Dam, Foundation stone of bullet train and introduction of ferry service are some of the projects he can take pride in.
With a little help from the Election Commission, which delayed announcement of elections in Gujarat even though it went ahead with Himachal, Modi has been on a spree to announce concessions and projects. The last minute GST correction, involving rate cut on 211 items and easing the filing of tax are all aimed at pleasing the trading community.
All eyes are now on Gujarat. A keen contest is on the cards and the long wait for the outcome would be awaited with baited breath.