Gujarat Polls; Modi’s legacy, charisma on test
The Gujarat assembly election are now round the corner. The state faces a triangular fight, or at least the media says so. The media spoke similarly very highly about the AamAadmi Party (AAP) when the assembly elections were held in Uttarakhand and in Goa. They ended up giving miserable performance in the two states.
AAP’s performance was initially tipped to be very good in Himachal Pradesh too. But despite a cheering media, the party itself decided to give up. AAP insiders say that with considerably weakened financial sinews, following arrest of Minister Satyender Jain in money laundering scam, it was not possible for Arvind Kejriwal to fight BJP on two fronts, thus he decided to ‘recall forces’ from Himachal for the bigger battle in Gujarat.
The big battle, as Kejriwal sees it, is his best opportunity to emerge as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He had made a similar attempt early in his career taking on Modi in 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Varanasi. This was at the peak of his anti-corruption movement and he managed to poll 2.09 lakh votes against Modi’s 5.81 lakh. The votes grabbed by him were much more than those put together by the Congress, Samajwadi Party and BahujanSamaj Party. However, in 2019 Lok Sabha polls while other players remained in the area, it was not just Kejriwal but also his party which was missing. When he took on Modi in 2014, Kejriwal enjoyed the image of Mr Clean. While there are several reasons for his party doing repeatedly well in Delhi and winning Punjab but honesty in public life is certainly not one of them. Today it’s a different Kejriwal who takes on Modi juggernaut in Gujarat.
Before we take this discussion further, let’s understand that Gujarat poll is semi-finals for the 2024 national polls. If Modi once again registers a resounding victory, he would be high on confidence to lead his party for a third term in Lok Sabha.
However, a defeat, which for now looks very remote, or a less than resounding victory would give signal to the divided Opposition to come together for a fight in 2024. The question is what’s the fight which Narendra Modi has at hand? BJP’s traditional opponents are the Congress in Gujarat. Despite the BJP being in the government in the state for almost three decades now, the Congress has so far managed to hold on to its traditional vote bank. In 2017, with an aggressive Rahul Gandhi leading a very bellicose campaign, the Congress nearly snatched victory. But for the last minute push given by Modi, Gujarat was as good as lost for the BJP.
The grammar of battle for the 182-seat assembly this time is different at least on two counts. First, Rahul Gandhi is leading a campaign for the resurgence of the Congress at the all India level and would join the Gujarat poll campaign only towards the end. Second is the very cantankerous presence of Arvind Kejriwal’s party. The question is whether AAP would make a difference, and if it does, whom would if affect – the Congress, as it traditionally does or for change, the BJP. The role of AAP would only be known when the ballot boxes or the voting machines open.
The western state has so far had the tradition bipolar polls. Not that powerful political leaders did not enter the fray in the past and tried making it a three corner contest. Chimanbhai Patel quit the Congress following his ouster in the face of the Navnirman students’ agitation in 1974 and formed the KisanMazdoorLokPaksha,ShankersinhVaghela, who walked out of the BJP to form the Rashtriya Janata Party in 1990s, and veteran BJP leader Keshubhai Patel, who formed the Gujarat Parivartan Party. All of them failed to make any impact.
Coming to the current campaign, AAP’s drive is vociferous and focussed more on the attack on the personality of the Prime Minister. Centre’s crackdown on Delhi Liquor Scam and other allegations of money laundering by the AAP leaders has made Kejriwal realise that BJP was not going to be accommodative towards his party any further, sit back and watch AAP cut into the Congress votes. Kejriwal realises that with the ‘patronage’ to play the hatchet man to make India ‘Congress Mukt’ gone, he has to take on the BJP for survival. In June this year, AAP revamped its state unit, appointed 850 office-bearers, enrolled 30,000 members, and publicly announced its intent to take on the ruling BJP with Kejriwal leading from the front.
Emboldened by their performance in the municipal polls in Surat, where it won 27 out of 120 seats, AAP realises that it’s time to change strategy and focus on urban seats, hitherto stronghold of the BJP. In 2017Vidhan Sabha elections, of the 55 urban constituencies in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat, the BJP bagged 44 and the Congress 11. A bad performance in Gujarat, and may be a loss in the Delhi municipal polls, which are being held simultaneously, would open the jail gates for several other AAP leaders. It’s more of a matter of survival for the AamAadmi Party than actually winning Gujarat. This has led them to even make attempt at influencing voters by circulating fake pictures of ‘large turnouts’ at their rallies. The Congress, on the other hand, has gone for an uncharacteristic low profile campaign focussing on door-to-door contacts, rejuvenating its strength in the rural areas and concentrating on such voter groups lie the farmers, jobless youth and the small-scale entrepreneur who have been hit by high rate on inflation and downturn in economy. In the 2017 Of the 127 rural and semi-urban constituencies, the Congress and allies won 68 and the BJP 55. While Arvind Kejriwal may vociferously dismiss the role of the Congress in the current polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in no mood take BJP’s traditional rival lightly. The Prime Minister in one of its rallies recently said that behind a quiet façade the Congress has tried to hide an active grassroots contact programme in the rural areas. The charge of the party campaign in Gujarat remains with Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot. He had arranged the campaign as party general secretary in 2017 too, when the Congress came very close to defeating BJP. On paper the Congress seems to have further strengthened its position by entering into an alliance with SharadPawar’s NCP, which had contested 2017 polls separately.
Under Prime Minister Modi, the BJP had won 127 seats to the Congress’ 51 in the 2002 elections. Modi as Chief Minister managed to hold onto to its charisma winning seats 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012 in the 182-member house. However, with Modi shifting base from Ahmedabad to New Delhi, party’s tally came down to 99 in 2017. Another point to be noted is that while Modi remained Chief Minister for almost 13 years, in the past eight years, there have been three chief ministers – Anandiben Patel, Vijay Rupani and now Bhupendrabhai Patel. Would this musical chair and dropping 38 sitting MLAs help BJP overcome anti-incumbency, as in 2017, is something to be watched.
In 2017, the emotive push by Modi in the last week of campaign had made BJP touch the ribbon ahead of the Congress. This time around too, it’s Modi legacy and Modi’s charisma which are going to be main driving force for the BJP.
By Sidharth Mishra
(The author is veteran political analyst and President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice.)