Travelling into Gujarat during election time is like entering the kingdom of an absolute monarch. Never before has a state election been so completely dominated by the personality of an individual in the manner of Gujarat 2012. The BJP's spinmasters have stopped short of announcing, 'BJP is Modi, and Modi is BJP' (remember Dev Kant Baruah's Emergency slogan 'India is Indira and Indira is India'?) but at the BJP office in Ahmedabad, the cult of Modi is visible. Posters, pamphlets, even designer gloves, all bear the image of one man.
The Congress campaign points to troubling malnutrition statistics; the Gujarat Parivartan Party talks of the 'revenge' of the Patels, local journalists warn of the brewing discontent in rural Saurashtra. But, frankly, there is only one issue in Gujarat: the persona of Narendra Modi. Little else matters, either to his supporters or detractors.
In the 2002 elections, the VHP and the likes of Praveen Togadia were star campaigners in the battle for 'Hindu hearts and minds'. Today, the VHP is a marginal force, their office has a funereal air and Togadia is almost irrelevant. In the 2007 elections, the Sangh parivar remained firmly within the BJP's embrace; today, it is scattered across the political landscape. That Modi has chosen 3D technology to project himself simultaneously across dozens of locations is a sign of the times - he now cuts through the traditional party apparatus and speaks directly to the voter.
Perhaps, Modi's biggest success has been his ability to identify the Gujarat growth story with himself. Vibrant Gujarat = Narendra Modi in the eyes of most Gujaratis. In particular, the "neo-middle class"- a term used by Modi during his manifesto release - sees the chief minister as their unquestioned champion. Who is this neo middle class? It is a highly aspirational, first generation middle class that has been the big beneficiary of economic liberalisation. This class is hooked onto Hindi business news channels like CNBC Aawaz, has strong associations with religious sects like Asaram Bapu and the Swaminarayan group, is tech savvy and linked to the wider Gujarati diaspora from New Jersey to Florida. Economically right wing but socially conservative: the rise of this class has made Gujarat India's first quintessentially right wing state.
It should be no surprise that all three major political groupings in this election are led by men who cut their political teeth in the RSS: Modi, Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela. Keshubhai may position himself as the face of 'parivartan' in Gujarat, but don't forget that his Man Friday, Gordhan Zadaphia, was Gujarat's minister of state for home during the 2002 riots, and widely held responsible for the partisanship of the state administration at the time.
With the BJP being in power in Gujarat since 1995, an entire generation has grown up in the state seeing only saffron rule. For a younger Gujarat in particular, the Congress represents an ancient regime: of caste alliances, 'minority appeasement', chief ministerial corruption and the pretence of Gandhian values. The BJP, on the other hand, is seen to represent a 'new' Gujarat: fiercely consumerist, overtly religious, where minorities have been shown their place and where there are no popular social protest movements. May be the marriage season has coincided with elections, but the festive air is unmistakable. Gujaratis, especially in the rapidly expanding cities, are on the move - malls are exploding, restaurants are packed, auto showrooms are multiplying and mutual fund hoardings dot the highways. Urban Gujarat in particular doesn't seem to be touched by the doom and gloom of a slow growth economy elsewhere.
With a 43% urban population and at least half the seats having a strong urban character, Modi appears unassailable. The Congress response to the Modi juggernaut has been to look beyond Modi's 2002 avatar. The state Congress has tried to combat Modi's good governance agenda by focusing on local issues: drinking water, education, and, importantly, low cost housing. The central leadership, which empathises with riot victims in TV studios, is much more cautious when it steps onto Gujarat's soil, perhaps worried that any repeat of a 'maut ka saudagar' like statement will only further polarise the Gujarati voter. The result is a low-key campaign that lives in hope as much as fear.
But the Congress's biggest problem remains the absence of a credible and charismatic face in Gujarat to take on Brand Modi. State elections are increasingly presidential: voters don't choose just between parties, they also choose between individuals. The BJP realised the limits of a 'collective' leadership concept during the UP elections earlier this year. The Congress, which has failed to create and empower state leaders, is poised to realise it in Gujarat. A BJP campaign ad which shows a single Modi-like kabaddi player taking on a host of unknown faces perhaps aptly reflects the terms of the battle in Gujarat: Modi versus the rest makes the choice relatively easy for the pragmatic Gujarati.
Does that mean the Gujarat election is a foregone conclusion? Ahmedabad's satta bazar - often a more accurate barometer of public mood than even psephologists - suggests that most bets are on the margin of Modi's victory. Ironically, the scale of Modi's win is being seen as a crucial determinant of his political ambitions beyond Gujarat. It's almost as if we know that South Africa would beat a Bangladesh in a Test match, but they need to win by an innings to establish their supremacy as the world number one side.
Post-script: Rahul Gandhi chose the last day of the first phase of the election campaign to visit Gujarat. I asked a local Congressman what he thought of it. His answer was revealing: "Rahulji is a national leader, this is a state election". Modi, by contrast, is a regional satrap who seems to be fighting a national election!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal