BJP faces tough challenge in Gujarat Modi & BJP org. may help it to win

Gujarat, voting to elect its MLAs on December 9 and 14, is poised for an close contest between the ruling BJP and the Congress that is putting up its best to wrest the initiative from the saffron party. Results of the election on December 18 are crucial for both the national parties as they are going to determine the course of national politics in years to come. The BJP has been in power since 1995 with a small break of 498 days when one of its leader Shankar Sinh Vaghela broke away with his followers from the saffron ranks to become the Chief Minister in 1997 with the support of the Congress.

Since March 1998, the BJP’s has been ruling the state shoving the opposition Congress to almost margins. Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained the chief minister for 12 years and he ruled the state like none making the state into a “model of development” that in turn became his USP to put a claim on the Delhi throne.

Since his moving to New Delhi in May 2014 after ensuring a massive electoral victory for the BJP in 2014 general election, Gujarat has seen two chief ministers namely Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani with both of them lacking both the charisma as well as political skills of Modi to keep the anti-incumbency under tight lid.

Woes and problems for the ruling party have further compounded because of the post-Modi state administration’s ill handling of protest movements led by youth leaders Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel who represent interests of Dalits, OBCs and Pattidars respectively.They are the product of protest movements that erupted in the state since the departure of Modi from the state.

Demonetisation and the introduction of the badly implemented GST have added to the difficulties of the ruling party because the large trading community of the state was unable to cope with the two shocks.

In the backdrop of the rising popular resentment and youth anger, the Congress, out of power in the state for over two decades, sees its chance of staging a comeback to power. The Congress has been playing its cards cautiously but intelligently. It has been able to rope in the support of Mevani, Thakor and Hardik Patel and has tied to contain division of votes by reaching electoral understanding with the breakaway faction of the JD (U) and NCP.

The Congress received a boost to its prospects in August this year when its leader Ahmed Patel could manage to win the Rajya Sabha seat thwarting the best-laid plan of BJP president Amit Shah to defeat him in the contest. Shah, who had engineered a rebellion in the Congress ranks by weaning away 11 of its MLAs to vote against Patel, had to swallow his pride as the latter scrapped through the election.

At the same time, the rebellion led by former chief minister Vaghela also helped in cleaning of the Congress as factionalism in country’s oldest party got considerably reduced presenting a unified image before the electorate. Another factor that has added to weight to Congress’ electoral prospects is achange in public perception of party vice president Rahul Gandhi who has been drawing crowds in his rallies, meetings and roadshows during his trips to the state in the last three months. Rahul Gandhi, who was an object of ridicule and was at the target of the RSS-BJP and the social media, is being seen as a serious political player by not only his well-wishers but even by his worst opponent.

An indicator of the threat that Gandhi seems to be posing is available in vitriolic attacks on him by BJP leaders. Almost every leader of the saffron party has been trying to belittle Gandhi who is going to take over the reins of the country’s main opposition party early next month.  One of the BJP spokespersons GVL Narasimha Rao went to the extent of comparing him with Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and monarch Alauddin Khilji reflecting signs of nervousness.

Sensing growing challenge for the party in the state, Modi and Shah have been marshalling all the resources at their command and using every trick up their sleeves to retain power. First, the party in power ensured that election date of Gujarat election were decoupled from that of Himachal assembly though results of two states are being declared on the same date.

Communal fault lines in the state are being sharpened by overt and covert campaigns. Controversies like one of film Padmawati are being fueled and encouraged. The state administration has declared a ban on the showing of the film even before it has been cleared by the country’s Censor Board.

Anticipating a tough contest, Modi has been visiting the state for the last six months at regular intervals launching projects and laying foundation stone of various schemes to woo the electorate. In next 12 days until the campaigning comes to an end on December 12, Modi is going to address two dozen rallies launching a blitzkrieg on the Congress. Almost every cabinet minister and majority of the chief ministers of BJP-ruled states have been asked by the Prime Minister to visit Gujarat for campaigning and on-the-spot firefighting.

Undoubtedly, the BJP is confronting a tough battle. Every media report from the state is unanimously saying that the saffron party is going to win on its organisational strengths and the Prime Minister’s sway and popularity on the electorate of the home state.  Are they enough to overcome the popular resentment against the ruling party? Objective conditions are not positive for the BJP but then poll outcomes are not easy to fathom.

In the 212 assembly elections, the BJP had won 117 seats securing 47.90 percent votes while the Congress had won 60 seats registering 38.90 percent votes meaning a difference of 9 percent between the two. Theoretically, a swing of 5 percent votes in favour of the Congress shall tilt the balance resulting in the electoral defeat of the BJP but will it happen is a billion dollar question.

Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.