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Sitaraman Shankar & Mahesh Langa, Hindustan Times
Ahmedabad, December 08, 2012
The most-watched Indian state election in recent years may or may not yield a sensational result, but it's clear that Gujarat 2012 is already a poll with a difference.

Different from other states because the large cutouts, blaring megaphones and door-to-door campaigns are either non-existent or tough to find, and different from past polls in the state because there is no single big issue over which the parties are fighting.

The election has taken on national importance because of the possibility - real or otherwise - of chief minister Narendra Modi becoming the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for 2014, but on the ground, the motto of its denizens could well be: no excitement please, we're Gujarati.

So what you get instead of the poll frenzy that marks the exercise in the rest of India is complete indifference through most of the day.  Unless you actively seek out a party rally, you could miss the action altogether.

Why? Part of it may be due to a tight leash on expenses imposed by the election commission.

But the main reason is that the average Gujarati is hard at work - selling his wares, trading on the stock market or planning the next big investment. Politics happens after work, almost as a pastime.

"I've got to sell tea. Who will run the stall if I go to attend a political rally?" says Ramesh Desai, a 33-year-old vendor near Navarangpura police station.

Business consultant Sunil Parekh says people are simply too busy to bother with politics during the day.

"I'd challenge you to rustle up even a small crowd for a 12.30 election meeting," he says.

Stroll through Ahmedabad's commercial heart of CG Road and all that reminds you that it's election season is the odd BJP flag and picture of Modi, in the hunt for a third successive term. This is very much BJP territory, but its near absence from the public eye is striking.

The Congress, which is running a campaign without a face, is even more absent.

Indeed, but for the political ads in the newspapers, one could be forgiven for thinking that Gujarat was drifting contentedly towards the end of the year.

Social historian Achyut Yagnik says the parties have opted to run a low-intensity but long-duration campaign.

Modi started his Sadbhavna mission - aimed at softening his anti-Muslim image -- in September 2011.

The Congress held one yatra in tribal areas and one in coastal areas earlier this year.

Crowds for such events are often bussed in from surrounding villages, like in the rest of India.

From the point of view of raising a crowd, it also helps that parts of the country, where the BJP held its early rallies, were in the middle of a drought or regions where there was one crop annually and not three.

In Surat, which goes to the polls in the first round on December 13, the rules set by the EC have been a real dampener, says Aslam Cyclewala, a Congress office-bearer.

"They are counting every chair you order from the tent house, every vehicle you hire, any campaign material you publish," he said, referring to the omnipresent EC observers.

These aren't the only reasons the campaign hasn't caught fire.

The 2002 elections were held in the backdrop of the worst communal riots in the state, which triggered a strong saffron wave.

Five years later, Modi leveraged the development plank and a Sonia Gandhi remark describing him as a merchant of death to polarise voters.

"Unlike in the past, this has been an issue-less election. Hence, there isn't much excitement among people," said Faisal Bakili, a local journalist with Gujarat Weekly in Surat.