In an election where politicians are being described as merchants, the Congress might be better off looking for the over-45 customers, as voters head to polling booths on Sunday.
Gujarat is an overwhelmingly young state — 4.2 crore out of its 5. 5 crore population is below 45 — and the Congress in Gujarat suffers from a deep disconnect with the youth, finding few issues during the campaign that resonate with them.
Like a movie star, the charismatic Rahul Gandhi brought thousands of mesmerised young men and women to his roadshows, but the Congress state set-up seemingly lacks the capacity to convert eyeball attention into votes.
Party chief Sonia Gandhi made a last minute attempt to raise unemployment concerns in the final stage of the campaign, alleging that 80,000 small industrial units had shut down during the BJP’s regime.
But in Gujarat, unemployment doesn’t cut much ice.
“There is such a boom. Small units like ours that had two welders, now need 10. We have a shortage of trained manpower,” said Shilpesh Patel, 35, whose family manufactures stone crushing machines in the Makarpura industrial zone outside Vadodara.
Yet, despite Gujarat’s youthful population, very few young people are contesting the polls. Of the 1,300-odd nominations, only 600 or so have gone to those below 45 — lower than in other states.
“Young people will vote for the Congress. The BJP had said it would create employment but the job-creating sectors of the economy are all in ruin,” said Paresh Dhanani, a 31-year-old Congress MLA. “Those who want to make a living with honour are not getting jobs.”
Many voters disagreed.
“It is easy for the Congress to say that the government is bad. They have been out of power here for 15 years, they have no idea of the serious problems of governance. In any case, they created most of those problems,” said Nirav Sutar, a 24-year-old postgraduate at Vadodara’s MS University.
The BJP is banking on the sweeping upturn in agriculture and industry that officials and experts say has created tens of thousands of jobs. But most of all, it relied on its supreme weapon: Modi’s hero worship by the youth.
“What a man — you fear him and yet you love him. Yes, I truly love him,” said university student Anil Kukadia.
But that adulation has a dark side — in communally divided central Gujarat, many Hindu youth showed no hesitation in acknowledging they loved Modi because they disliked Muslims.
“Narendra Modi has done good work for Gujarat but we are supporting him because we love his Hindutva campaign,” said Jitendrabhai Patel, a commerce graduate in Kukkad village in Vadodara district. Much of the 2002 rioting took place in central Gujarat.
“The Congress favours Muslims. That is why all young people here hate it,” he added. The BJP has also used technology to reach out to young voters.
“Our target was the internet users, particularly the youth. The internet has destroyed the urban-rural divide. There are lots of internet users in rural areas,” said Shashiranjan Yadav, head of the BJP’s information technology cell. The party used networking sites like Orkut and Youtube, cellphone ring tones and internet mailers to access the youth.
And even among the state’s Muslim community, some said the pace of development has rounded off the edges of their long years of opposition to the BJP.
“If pockets are empty, there will be violence. If people are jobless, there will be violence. Now that everyone is getting jobs, why should there be riots?” asked Ali Asghar Attarwala, an architect in Jamnagar.