All elections are important, but some elections are more important than others. The forthcoming assembly polls in Gujarat fall squarely in the second category.
This is largely due to Chief Minister Narendra Modi's larger than life aura, and the curious brand of Hindutva cum development that has become the trademark of his rule. Few leaders in India have been idolized as much by supporters and demonised as much by detractors, as Modi. If the BJP wins again, Modi's style of governance will be largely vindicated. If he fails to do so, the single reliable bastion of the BJP in the country will have collapsed, providing a tremendous boost to its political opponents, the Congress and, at the central level, the Left as well.
The odds of history are stacked in Modi's favour. Though the BJP's victory in the 2002 assembly polls, when it grabbed 126 of the 182 seats (its current tally following some by-elections, is 130) was impressive, it was not extraordinary by its own standards. The BJP had won 117 seats in 1998; in the 1995 assembly election, it had done even better with a tally of 121.
But there is one key difference between the past three Vidhan Sabha elections and this one. Those three were all held in emotionally charged settings.
In 1995, Ayodhya still had drawing power. In 1998, elections were held in the aftermath of Shankersinh Vaghela's revolt within the BJP which generated enormous sympathy for Keshubhai Patel, who was seen as having been unfairly deprived of chief ministership.
The 2002 elections were held in the shadow of the horrendous Gujarat riots, whose official death count crossed 1,000.
Close analysis has shown a strong correlation between the seats the BJP won and the areas where the riots broke out.
The BJP's 126-seat tally was certainly impressive, but it was not uniformally spread across the entire state.
In the Kutch-Saurashtra region, for instance, practically untouched by the riots, the BJP did much worse than in the previous poll. In South Gujarat, again riot-free, the Congress performed marginally better than the BJP.
Parts of North Gujarat did see largescale killings, but there were also parts which remained completely peaceful. The BJP tally increased by just two seats here from 1998. The worst riot-affected area was Central Gujarat, and it was here the BJP did spectacularly, its seat-share rising from 22 in 1998 to 40.
Five years later, with neither the BJP nor its opponents keen to stoke the memory of those dark days, can the pattern be repeated? A pointer may lie in the results of 2004 Lok Sabha polls, when a similar 'normal' atmosphere prevailed. In such 'normal' circumstances, the BJP got just 14 of Gujarat's 26 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress bagging the remaining 12.
The anti-Modi trends visible in mid 2004 have only intensified over the last three and a half years. Dissidence is louder than it was then; the RSS and VHP are even less cooperative than they were then.
Modi's admirers say the 2004 results are irrelevant today. "The party suffered because people were voting for Vajpayee and Advani then, neither of whom they care for. This time, they are voting for Modi and the results will be different," said a senior BJP leader in confidence.