Gujarat election: PM Modi looms large in India state polls


The western Indian state of Gujarat is set to choose its next government in a two-phase election that begins on Thursday.

Pre-poll surveys have predicted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win a majority of the 182 seats in the state for a record seventh time in a row, defeating the main opposition Congress party and new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Results will be announced on 8 December.

Analysts say that the biggest factor in favour of the BJP is Mr Modi’s appeal among voters.

“It is [Mr Modi’s] iconic, larger-than-life Hindu hriday samrat [the king of the Hindu heart] image which draws all the votes,” says political scientist Ghanshyam Shah.

Gujarat has a close connection with India’s current prime minister: Mr Modi was chief minister of the state for 12 years since 2002 and it was here that he polished his brand of strident Hindu nationalism, established his paradigm of development and his version of governance that is visible in several national policies.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Mr Modi is the face of the BJP’s election campaign in the state.

“You remove him and it all goes crashing like a pack of cards,” says Achyut Yagnik, a political analyst.

Gujarat’s chief minister Bhupendra Patel – the state’s third since Mr Modi stepped down to become India’s prime minister in 2014 – asks for votes in Mr Modi’s name, as do other BJP candidates.

The discourse of Mr Modi-vs-the-rest is so dominant that even the bridge collapse tragedy in Morbi district in the state just a month ago – in which 135 people died – isn’t really an election issue.

Then there’s the uncertainty caused by the AAP’s entry. Pre-poll surveys say that anti-BJP votes could be split between the Congress and the AAP, which could give the governing party a bigger majority than the record 127 out of 182 seats it won in 2002.

A 4 November survey by polling agency C-Voter has predicted anywhere from 131-139 seats for the BJP, 31-39 for the Congress and 7-15 for the AAP. Some other surveys have predicted between 115 and 125 seats for the BJP.

In the months leading up to the election, all three major parties in the fray have tried to woo voters by making lofty promises and trashing their opponents.

The Congress calls the AAP a “vote-breaker” in a conventionally bi-polar state.

The AAP, in turn, accuses the Congress of allowing the BJP’s “misrule” to continue since 1995, when the right-wing party first won the election.

And BJP president JP Nadda, who released the party’s manifesto over the weekend, has ridiculed his rivals’ poll promises and claimed that the BJP is winning hands down.

Federal home minister Amit Shah, also from the state and among the BJP’s top campaigners, has said that the party “will break all previous records”.

Campaign promises

Like it did in other states, the BJP began its campaign with the promise of a “double-engine government” – one in power both nationally and in the state – which could deliver all-round development.

Since then, Mr Modi’s rousing speeches criticising his opponents have often made news.

“They call me names, they say they will show my place, they call me a lowly person. I am the most abused person. [But] I swallow all of it because it is the country’s development that is in my heart,” he has said.

Mr Modi has accused the Congress party of being soft on terrorism while it ran the federal government, referring to incidents including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks which left 166 dead.

The party’s manifesto also says that the state government will set up an “anti-radicalisation cell” to identify and eliminate potential terror threats.

The BJP has also promised to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – a single personal law for all citizens that experts have said would be “fiendishly difficult” to frame – if it comes to power.

While it’s in the lead, the BJP is not complacent. This month, Mr Modi has held more than 20 rallies in the state and announced a slew of public schemes worth 2 trillion rupees ($24.5bn; £20.3bn). Two huge industrial projects which were slated to start operations in Maharashtra state were recently shifted to Gujarat.

Mr Modi has campaigned extensively in state elections before, but some analysts believe that the time he has spent canvassing ballots in Gujarat hints at “some panic in the BJP camp”. They also point to the fact that party leaders have also been using Hindu nationalist rhetoric in speeches instead of focusing on the government’s track record.

It’s an allegation the party’s supporters deny.

Mahendra Kajiwala, a businessman in Surat city, says the party needs to return to power to continue “the path of infrastructural development which Narendra Modi initiated”.

“I don’t know about [Hindu nationalist rhetoric], but I can say the BJP led by Mr Modi will win even if such issues are not raised,” he adds.

But the BJP has been facing some challenges too. Around 19 lawmakers who were not made candidates are contesting independently.

The state government has also been facing protests by government employees over issues including salaries and pensions; an inter-state river-linking project had to be scrapped following huge protests by tribal people; and a law aimed at prohibiting the movement of stray cows in public places had drawn outrage from cattle-rearers.

The rivals

The Congress had given the BJP a scare in the 2017 election, winning 77 seats by taking advantage of rural anger over economic distress and a powerful upper-caste agitation for reservations. It is not expected to perform as well this time, but it has been working on strengthening its tribal and Dalit vote base and reaching out to Muslim voters as well.

More than the Congress, it’s the AAP’s forays into the urban voter base that the BJP is concerned about. The Arvind Kejriwal-led party has been reaching out to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds such as tuk-tuk drivers, roadside vendors, small traders and small-scale industrial units.

The party has also promised free power, schools and medical facilities like those found in national capital Delhi, which it governs.

With the BJP clearly in the lead, the Gujarat election may appear a tepid affair bereft of any wave – but with key state polls coming up next year and then the general election in 2024, all the contenders are hoping they end this year on a political high.

Source: BBC