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Gujarat poll campaign for first phase ends

india Updated: Dec 09, 2007 20:41 IST

The high-decibel campaign for the first phase of the 182-member Gujarat assembly election Tuesday came to an end Sunday evening after star campaigners of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress made a final pitch before the voters.

The first round will see polling in 87 constituencies from Saurashtra, Kutch and south Gujarat to decide the fate of 668 candidates.

On Sunday, the Congress played its trump card, fielding young MP Rahul Gandhi in a road show in Surat. For the BJP, Chief Minister Narendra Modi toured parts of central Gujarat that go to the polls in the second phase on Dec 16.

Some of the key members of Modi's cabinet in the fray for the first phase are Finance Minister Vajubhai Vala and Urban Development Minister IK Jadeja.

Six BJP dissidents are contesting in this phase as Congress candidates - five of them from Saurashtra.

Saurashtra is expected to be the region that would decide the winner. Along with Kutch, it accounts for 58 seats and the two regions have been a hub of anti-Modi dissident activity over the last few years.

The BJP had 39 of the 58 seats in 2002 - the tally coming down from 52 of 1998. This time the party faces an uphill task because of the dissidents, apart from the anti-incumbency factor.

Modi's predecessor Keshubhai Patel is from this region and he has been at the centre of the rebellion in the BJP.

In south Gujarat the two main parties are locked in a neck-to-neck race: while the Congress expects electoral gains in the tribal belt, the BJP hopes to maintain its hold in semi-urban and urban areas. Forestland rights for tribals and the flood of 2006 in Surat and adjoining areas are major issues here.

The dissidence factor is also expected to play a role as leaders like former union minister Kashiram Rana and former BJP legislator Dhiru Gajera, who is now contesting on the Congress ticket, have been active.

The BJP had started its campaign about a month ago on development issues but Modi and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi ended up trading charges over communalism and terrorism.

While Gandhi used the phrase "merchants of death" to describe the Modi government, the chief minister responded by virtually justifying the staged police killing of a Muslim youth, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was allegedly wrongly branded a terrorist.

Following complaints, the Election Commission issued a notice to Modi, who replied Saturday, saying he was misquoted in some media reports. He said he was only reacting to Gandhi's charge and demanded action against her.

The poll panel Sunday issued a notice to Gandhi too.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also addressed an election rally in Surat, appealing voters to bring Gujarat back into the mainstream of Indian polity that is, he said, marked by peaceful co-existence, secularism and inclusive growth.

In its manifesto, the Congress has promised a safe and economically developed Gujarat wherein the optimum potential of the state would be used to make it the leader in the country. The BJP has not touched upon the sensitive Hindutva agenda in its election manifesto, and instead focussed on people's problems.

Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi told IANS: "Our campaign has been very positive in nature. We have focused on what the Congress will do to make Gujarat number one in the country once again. We have told people how the Modi government has misled them on various issues."

BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told reporters Sunday: "The Congress simply has no issue in this election and is hence resorting to raising issues like 'merchants of death'."

While the BJP is contesting all 87 seats in the first phase, the Congress has fielded 82 candidates with the remaining seats going to its allies.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a new entrant in Gujarat, is contesting 78 seats.