Ritesh K Srivastava
As Gujarat goes to the polls, the ruling BJP seems to have an upper hand over main Opposition Congress. However, given the uncertainties that are part of any electoral battle, the fight is far from over and it would be imprudent to predict the result before the last vote is cast.
While the state’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi is determined to win a third straight term, his political opponents (Congress, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and his rivals within his party) are also not leaving any stone unturned to dislodge him from power.
The 2012 Assembly elections holds national significance for both the Congress and Modi, who aims to win a big mandate to secure the backing of his party as its Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 General Elections.
Although, most of the poll surveys have predicted a comfortable victory for Modi, who had won his previous terms riding on the Hindutva wave and the development plank; the focus this time is whether or not the BJP leader will win with a huge margin – at least equal 2007 tally of 117 seats.
Since the 2002 communal riots, Modi has completely dominated the political landscape in Gujarat and has in a way converted it into BJP’s laboratory of Hindutva politics. Modi’s aggressive brand of politics created a personality cult with him becoming the biggest face of the saffron brigade.
Buoyed with the electoral success and the economic progress of Gujarat, the ‘cult’ of Modi, often referred to as ‘Moditva’, soon replaced the Hindutva card there. It is this factor, more than the secular forces that the Congress and the GPP - third entrant in the electoral fray led by a rebel BJP heavyweight Keshubai Patel – is fighting to unsettle Modi’s applecart.
Both BJP and the Congress have carefully designed their election strategy, choosing not to touch the emotive communal issues, and made development vs non-development as their main poll plank.
While camp Modi is relying on their leader’s impressive record - strong governance, job creation, sound infrastructure, promises of affordable housing and zero bureaucratic hassles for industrialists - there are certain others factors, which can play a decisive role in this year’s election.
This will be the first Assembly election to be conducted after the delimitation exercise. Due to delimitation, the constituencies have become smaller and the margin of victory will shrink. The winner`s margin is likely to be precariously low if there is a triangular contest. Keshubhai Patel`s GPP is largely banking on this change in the Saurashtra/Kutch region.
GPP - The saffron challenge to Modi
The GPP led by Keshubhai Patel, Modi`s senior in the BJP and the tallest leader of powerful Patel community is likely to eat into saffron party`s votes particularly in the Kutch/Saurashtra region, which sends 58 MLAs to the legislative assembly.
The GPP has converted this year’s Assembly polls into a triangular contest and raised hopes in the Congress of making a comeback. GPP can make a difference in about twenty Assembly seats directly and marginally in one dozen more seats by cutting BJP`s traditional Leuva Patel votes. Both GPP and Congress are also likely to benefit from an agrarian disaffection against the BJP due to poor rains in cotton and groundnut growing regions of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.
Denying tickets to Muslims
Post-Godhra riots, Modi has made serious attempts to win over Muslims. Last year’s Sadbhawana Yatra was a case point before controversy erupted over Modi not accepting Muslim headgear presented to him by a maulvi. Also, Modi, while releasing the party’s election manifesto, promised development to 60 million Gujaratis, without any bias.
However, Modi chose to not field Muslim candidates on BJP ticket. Officially, the BJP says that nothing much should be read into Muslims being denied tickets as the party does not believe in appeasing Muslims like Congress and only goes by the candidate`s ability to win.
Expectedly, Modi’s political opponents are not buying the argument and believe that he has shown his true colours. Hence, denying minorities (9% of the state`s population) any representation in the Assembly could prove costly to Modi. More importantly, he may have had lost a golden chance to improve his image and widen his reach beyond Gujarat if he aims to play a major role in national politics
Lokayukta and the battle against corruption
In the past eleven years of his rule, Modi has shown little respect to institutions like Lokayukta and made the Legislative Assembly almost powerless. Modi has steadfastly opposed the appointment of the state’s Lokayukta, hurting his party’s stand on corruption. By resisting the appointment of Lokayukta - a major demand of Congress - and making the Assembly ineffective, the Modi government has compromised the public`s interests and stooped low on the parameters of accountable and transparent governance. This has led the Opposition to claim that corruption in Gujarat is institutionalised, widespread and deeply entrenched at all levels.
Autocratic functioning and internal dissent
Modi is seen as an authoritarian and vindictive leader. Several top leaders in BJP and Gujarat are trying to sabotage his chances - some openly, while others are practicing it covertly. Many prominent members of VHP and the RSS are unhappy with Modi because of his dictatorial methods. Most of these leaders are happy with his pro-Hindutava agenda but oppose Modi because he tolerates no form of dissidence or opposition. It is no secret that the BJP central leadership has virtually no say in the affairs of Gujarat.
Though anti-incumbency is not a key factor in Gujarat unlike other states, a section of the Gujarati society is apparently upset with the government’s apathy to their problems. It is visible in the rural areas because Modi`s model of development seems to have no tangible benefit on people there. The gap between rich and poor has increased drastically and distribution of wealth has been asymmetrical. The poor and ‘neo-middle class’ are most hit by the burden of alleged crony capitalism that has grown under Modi.
Despite accelerating the pace of development in Gujarat, the Modi government has failed on several counts. Alleged corruption scams over the last nine years worth Rs 51,932.11 crore (as per CAG report between 2002-2010) have been subject of debate. The progress in several sectors like health care, education and housing has been very poor. Besides, the condition of farmers, Dalits, tribals, minorities and the government employees is increasingly under the scanner.
Modi’s track record on the housing front has also left much to be desired, prompting the Congress to launch ‘Ghar nu Ghar’ scheme that proposes to provide cheap housing to urban poor if the party is voted to power.
In order to counter Congress, Modi promised 50 lakh houses in next five years, 30 lakh jobs and quick resolution of other problems like water shortage, irrigation, farmers issues. Modi also promised to give various sops to a new section of "neo-middle class" which are above the poverty line but below the middle class category.
The Godhra ghost
Though Modi has taken serious efforts in softening his image of a hardline leader and promote religious harmony, this may not be enough. The 2002 communal riots in Godhra continue to haunt Modi and he is still seen with suspicion by the minorities and the international community.
While a section of BJP leaders believe that only Modi can reinvigorate the Hindu nationalist party, there is an equally strong lobby which opposes him on grounds that it will distract the minorities. For BJP, having Modi as its prime ministerial candidate could throttle the party`s efforts to recapture lost ground in northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have a sizable chunk of Muslims. BJP also risks losing key allies it needs to form a national government. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar would probably shun a BJP-led coalition with Modi at the helm.
Despite all odds, Modi`s supporters hope that the merits of his governance will strike a chord with middle-class voters who form the BJP`s traditional support base. He enjoys support of prominent industrialists, corporate houses and NRI Gujaratis settled abroad. Many business tycoons believe that Modi’s rise will give strong support to industry and attract huge investments. Modi’s ability to cut red tape and provide one point clearance will work in his favour. However, a lot will depend on Modi’s performance in urban areas where he enjoys massive support.