A decade after post-Godhra riots polarised voters on communal lines in Gujarat, chief minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third straight term in office largely on the development plank as he battles traditional rival Congress and a rebel BJP heavyweight bent upon upsetting his applecart.
Election 2012 in Gujarat, the laboratory of Hindutva politics, like the previous two polls, is all about Modi and the larger than life image he has created of himself.
Modi, Gujarat's longest serving chief minister, has completely dominated state's political landscape since 2002, when the communal riots that claimed over 1000 lives, mostly Muslims, brought him disrepute but created a personality cult around him.
However, the near complete absence of emotive communal issue, coupled with the launch of Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) by Keshubhai Patel and the anti-incumbency factor may put hurdles in his pursuit of power for an unprecedented third term in a row.
Keshubhai's emergence, a hurdle
Emergence of Keshubhai, Modi's predecessor and a highly respected leader of the politically powerful Patel community, a traditional votebank of the BJP, on the electoral scene, has raised hopes in the Congress of making a comeback as it expects GPP to eat into saffron party's votes, particularly in the Kutch/Saurashtra region, which sends 58 MLAs to the 182-member Legislative Assembly.
Congress had last secured a majority in the state in 1985 winning 149 seats. Both Congress and GPP also hope to reap a rich electoral harvest from poor rains this year that has led to an agrarian disaffection with BJP in cotton and groundnut growing regions of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.
To neutralise Keshubhai's influence among Patels, BJP roped in former deputy chief minister Narhari Amin of the Congress, also a Patel, days ahead of the polls scheduled for December 13 and 17, but observers feel that hailing from Ahmedabad, he would be considered an outsider in the Kutch/Saurashtra belt and thus of little use there.
Amin broke away from the Congress after he was denied nomination to contest the poll, having lost twice in successive elections.
Modi eyes 'urban voters'
Aware of the damage Keshubhai could cause in his area of influence, Modi has launched a high-tech campaign targeted at the 'faithful' urban voters who have benefited from rapid industrialisation of the state under him.
His emphasis on further uplift of the "neo-middle class" comprising a vast section which has come above the poverty line but still cannot be classified as middle class, in his election manifesto, is probably aimed at nullifying the damage-causing potential of Keshubhai Patel in Kutch/Saurashtra belt and agrarian discontent in North Gujarat which together account for 110 seats in the House.
Congress spokesperson Ameeben Yagnik does not agree with the "tall claims" of development by Modi.
"What development is he talking about when 44% of children in the state are malnourished? There is no affordable housing for the urban and rural poor," she said.
Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice Chancellor of Vidyapeeth, shares her views. "Bread was never an issue in Gujarat, relative deprivation is. 65% of the electorate is urban (who have prospered under Modi). But according to a United Nations study, 25% of people in Gujarat live below the hunger index," he said.
Corruption, law & order allegations
Modi is also facing criticism for his handling of law and order with his right hand man and former minister Amit Shah facing trial for allegedly plotting the cold blooded murder of gangsters Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati. Several other fake encounters are also under judicial scrutiny.
Modi is also under attack for giving away fertile land to industrialists at throwaway prices but Devang Nanavati of state BJP's intellectual cell defends the decision, saying it has brought jobs for the employable youth.
"Industrialisation is the need of the hour. No wrong has been done in giving land for industries. Several projects for which the government is facing criticism are on Build-Operate-Transfer basis and the land would return to the state after a period of time," Nanavati said.
He said the fact that Congress had fielded as many as five sitting MPs in the Assembly polls reflects the crisis of confidence in the party.
Asked about Modi's style of functioning, often described as autocratic by his detractors, Nanavati said, "If it was so, people would not have stood solidly behind him all these years."
"The masses are with BJP and Modi. Look what happened to Shankar Singh Vaghela after he quit BJP. Keshubhai Patel and his party will meet the same fate," he claimed.
Overcoming communal passions
However, Modi who has been successful in warding off any major communal conflagration since the 2002 riots, claims his detractors were spreading canards to stall development.
Close watchers of the election scene also feel lack of clarity on who would become Chief Minister in the "highly improbable" event of Congress coming to power is also working to BJP's advantage.
Apart from Shankar Singh Vaghela, a former BJP chief minister, who heads Congress' election campaign committee, state party chief Arjun Modhwadia and leader of the opposition Shaktisinh Gohil, besides Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel are among those being named as possible contenders.
Though Modi largely focused on development agenda during the campaign, attacking the UPA government for neglecting Gujarat, in an apparent reflection of his unease after Keshubhai launched his outfit, he subtly played the communal card when he said though the Congress wanted Ahmed Patel, a Muslim, as its Chief Ministerial candidate, it was fighting shy of announcing his name for the job.
An angry Congress retaliated, saying Modi was trying to stoke communal passions.
"They never had the issue of development in 2002 and 2007 elections. Everyone knows what issues they fought on...In 2012 they do not have any issue on which they can divide the society, or stoke passions, so history repeats itself...they are trying to rake up 'Mia' Patel issue," Vaghela said, rising to Modi's bait.