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As Gujarat votes today, here’s what’s at stake for Narendra Modi and the BJP

The outcome of the Gujarat elections from the home state of PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah could help the party push its plans and colour the campaigns for state elections next year.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2017 10:28 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
Gujarat elections,Narendra Modi,Bharatiya Janata Party
A girl holds cut out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally in Ahmadabad on December 8. (AP Photo)

Saturday’s polling in 19 districts of Saurashtra and South Gujarat regions will have implications beyond the state — a resounding victory could give Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party the courage to push through ambitious social, economic and political plans.

A blow, likewise, could tamp down those ambitions, especially since Gujarat is the home state of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.

The plans include a bill to criminalise the Muslim practice of ‘triple talaq’. The message from Gujarat could determine how it is manoeuvred through Parliament, which will begin its Winter Session on December 15. The Gujarat election result will be declared on December 18.

The budget, the first after the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), will likely be the next most important area where the effects could be felt.

Politically, the outcome could colour the campaigns for state elections next year, particularly Tripura and Karnataka that may go to polls in the first quarter.

The first phase is particularly crucial for the BJP. The districts going to polls are where Patidars are a dominant group, and their decision can make or break the BJP’s chances. Out of the 89 seats in the phase, the BJP won 63 while 22 went to the Congress in the last election.

The advantage

There is little – or no – dip in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal appeal to voters in Gujarat. The western state is his home and he knows the region better than anyone else. The BJP benefits immensely out of the trust that Gujarat voters rest in him.

The middle class – and they are in majority in Gujarat – remains loyal to him. “This is BJP’s strength,” said political-scientist Ghanshyam Shah. “Modi has managed to build a caste-neutral constituency for himself.”

The Congress does not have leader with the appeal that Modi has in Gujarat. It also lacks BJP chief Amit Shah’s style of micro-managing the election. A lot of research went into BJP’s candidate selection and last-minute changes were made to ensure the right caste balance is struck on each seat.

The BJP has a strong cadre base, unlike the Congress, and every booth of Gujarat is mapped for canvassing. The party has conducted three rounds of door-to-door outreach so far, and nearly every voter of Gujarat has been personally reached.

Gujarat also has a strong network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – BJP’s ideological parent – and, despite differences over issues; it rallies around to help the BJP during elections.

The BJP is conscious of an inertia that a 20-year rule might have brought in and tried to fight the anti-incumbency factor by dropping more than 30 sitting MLAs. The strategy has worked in the last two elections and the BJP hopes it will this time too.

“We will win 150 plus seats,” said Bhupendra Yadav, the BJP’s general secretary in-charge for Gujarat. “We receive support from every community.”

The minuses

The response from Patidars belies BJP’s confidence about getting a three-fourths majority. The hostility is such that they have stopped BJP candidates from campaigning in certain pockets. Gujarat’s most prosperous community, the Patidars have been nursing a grudge against the ruling party since a police crackdown in 2015 on an agitation for reservation.

The emergence of 24-year-old Hardik Patel is a manifestation of the anger in the community and his rallies across Gujarat have largely been a hit.

Adding to that is the party’s troubles with other castes. Alpesh Thakor, an OBC, and Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit, are prominent caste leaders who now oppose the BJP. Thakor has joined Congress and Mevani is fighting as an independent, with Congress support. Thakor will bring new energy into the Congress in north Gujarat, an area where the grand old party did reasonably well even during Narendra Modi days.

Mevani’s influence appears limited compared to Hardik and Thakor, but he has drawn support from the Muslilm community in his region. Together, Dalits and Muslim are capable of springing a surprise in about half a dozen assembly seats. Any gain that Mevani makes will be BJP’s loss.

A distress in the farm sector and a lack of jobs also stares into the BJP’s face. Farmers are complaining about low procurement prices – produce such as cotton and groundnut are fetching prices lower than last time. The BJP could be in a tight spot if this angst translates into votes.

This is the first election since 2001 that the BJP is without Narendra Modi as the chief minister. It has tried to compensate it with nearly 20 rallies of the Prime Minister so far.

First Published: Dec 09, 2017 10:26 IST