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Modi on strong wicket in round two

india Updated: Dec 14, 2007 10:23 IST
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Putting the more challenging first round behind it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now looking at retaining its hold in north and central Gujarat in the second and final round of the assembly elections Sunday, while the Congress hopes desperately for a reversal to its rival.

The 95 constituencies going to the polls include the urban centres of Ahmedabad and Vadodara - where Modi's supposed charisma still holds. Incidentally, the two cities were the main flashpoints in the sectarian violence of 2002, leading to the communal polarisation amid which the BJP won a record 127 seats in the 182-member house in December that year.

While there is no pressing emotive issue before the voters, observers say that the communal divide has only widened in the five years of Modi's rule.

The Congress was on a sure footing in the first phase of polling Tuesday for 87 seats in Saurashtra, Kutch and south Gujarat, where Modi was facing rebellion from within his party. In round two, the BJP would be more comfortable.

In the last assembly elections, the BJP had wrested two key regions traditionally known as Congress strongholds: central Gujarat and the tribal belt on the state's border with Madhya Pradesh, which too were affected by the violence.

The Congress has focused on central Gujarat since the people in the region voted for it in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Three of its MPs from this zone, Shankarsingh Vaghela, Dinsha Patel and Naranbhai Rathwa, have been included in the central council of ministers.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's two public meetings in Devgadh Baria and Anand this year before the announcement of the elections were met with an enthusiastic response.

The BJP has been trying to woo voters here on the developmental issue, pointing out that infrastructure has improved and the level of safety and security has also gone up in the last five years.

But when it comes to north Gujarat, Modi is on a strong wicket. His hometown Vadnagar, incidentally, is in that region. The BJP had won 37 of the 52 seats in north Gujarat in the last elections and the tally, if anything, could only increase.

"The fact that Modi belongs to this region is definitely a big factor since the people immediately identify with him and the party," said Shashiranjan Yadav of the BJP.

He said people there are happy with the Modi government. "The water and power supply situation in the region has largely improved and the farmers in particular are very happy with the party," Yadav told IANS.

Moreover, the caste equations too seem tilted in its favour. In Saurashtra, the Leuva Patel community was perceived to be unhappy with Modi, given the treatment the BJP meted out to their leader and former chief minister, Keshubhai Patel.

However, in north Gujarat, there are more Kadva Patels than Leuvas - a factor that goes in the BJP's favour.

Observers feel that the third factor working to the BJP's benefit is that the region is home to a substantial population of Chaudharys and some other backward classes (OBCs).

Vipul Chaudhary, among the most influential leaders of the Chaudhary community, has once again joined hands with Modi - himself an OBC - after a face-off for a while.

BJP supporters feel the party has focused on this area during the last five years, in organising a number of mega events including the official Independence Day function in 2003 in Patan, from where Anandiben Patel, education minister and a Modi confidant, is seeking re-election.

The BJP projected the event as an attempt to revive the lost glory of the city that was the capital of Gujarat in medieval times.

However, the Congress has not given up the fight in north Gujarat.

"It is a matter of perception. You generally do not know what might happen since the elections to the assembly are contested more on the basis of personality of the contestant and his rapport with the electorate," said Congress leader Manish Tiwari.

The large number political heavyweights in the fray include Modi who is pitted against Dinsha Patel in Maninagar of Ahmedabad, state ministers Amit Shah and Ashok Bhatt and veteran Congress leader Narhari Amin.

While most constituencies will see a direct fight between the two main parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party is also contesting independently.

A total of 18.7 million people are eligible to vote. There are 599 candidates in the fray, including 31 women.

Rakhial in Ahmedabad is the constituency with the maximum number of contestants, 73, while Mahar is the only constituency where there is a direct fight between the two main parties.

The largest constituency in terms of size and voters is Sarkhej while the smallest one is Kalupur, both in Ahmedabad. A total of 20,544 electronic voting machines (EVMs) will be used in as many polling booths Sunday.

The counting of votes will take place on December 23.