Poll battle heats up with rally overdrive in Gujarat
Eighty-nine seats in the Saurashtra and south Gujarat regions, dominated by Patidars and other farming communities, will go to the polls in the first phase on December 1 and are considered the key to grabbing power in the state.
Campaigning for the assembly elections in Gujarat kicked into high gear on Monday with top leaders descending on the battleground regions of Saurashtra and south Gujarat that go to the polls in the first phase on December 1.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at three rallies in Surendranagar, Navsari and Jambusar as part of his campaign blitz in the final weeks of the election campaign. Union home minister Amit Shah addressed rallies in Saurashtra’s coastal region of Dwarka and Junagadh. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addressed his first public meetings in the western state in Rajkot and Surat, taking a break from his ongoing mass contact programme, Bharat Jodo Yatra. And, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal held a rally in Amreli, promising one million jobs and free electricity if his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) comes to power in its maiden electoral foray in the state.
Modi attacked the Congress. “Your (Congress) padyatra is to grab power and nothing else,” he said in Surendranagar. Shah said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ensured peace in the state. Gandhi accused the state government of trying to hide the real culprits behind the death of 141 people in a bridge collapse last month in Morbi town. Kejriwal asked voters to give the AAP a chance and said both major parties had failed the people.
Eighty-nine seats in the Saurashtra and south Gujarat regions, dominated by Patidars and other farming communities, will go to the polls in the first phase on December 1 and are considered the key to grabbing power in the state. The battle is particularly fierce in the 48 constituencies of the Saurashtra region, where the Congress flipped several seats in the 2017 election, riding a wave of discontent among farmers and traders and the agitation for quotas by Patidars. This time, the BJP is looking to take back many of the 28 seats the Congress won five years ago, while the AAP is hoping its promise of better governance delivery will help it win support, especially in the peri-urban and rural seats.
Unlike the 2017 elections, reservation for Patidars is not a poll issue this time. However, inflation and rising debt of farmers are some of the pre-dominant issues of the agrarian region of Saurashtra.
Focus will be on the industrial powerhouse town of Surat, which the BJP has traditionally swept but saw a resurgent AAP break through the bipolar polity in last year’s municipal elections. The triangular fight in Gujarat — the first in the state since 1990 — will largely hinge on the AAP’s ability to hive off votes from the BJP and Congress, and Surat will be a bellwether for this phenomenon.
In Surat, slowing down of economy and its impact on small scale textile and diamond industries are some of the issues, other than inflation and unemployment.
The first phase is especially important given that the second round of elections in 93 constituencies on December 5 will be held across the BJP strongholds of central and north Gujarat. Results will be announced on December 8, along with Himachal Pradesh. The BJP, which is looking for its seventh straight assembly election victory, changed its chief minister and virtually the entire state cabinet last year in a bid to curb anti-incumbency. The Congress has run a relatively quiet campaign focussed on grassroots workers, and the AAP is looking to make inroads in BJP and Congress vote bases.
In his three rallies, Modi kept up his attack on the Congress and accused the Opposition party of repeatedly insulting him in the past.
“Your (Congress) padyatra is to grab power and nothing else,” Modi said in Surendranagar. “Now you are walking hand-in-hand in your yatra with those (reference to Medha Patkar) who opposed the Narmada Scheme. The Gujarat voters will punish you in the coming elections,” he added.
On the third day of his election tour in Gujarat — he addressed four rallies on Sunday and one on Saturday — Modi accused the Congress of calling him names. “You have called me ‘maut ka saudagar‘(merchant of death). They talked about showing me my aukat (class) and said I have no aukat,” he said, referring to past criticisms of him by Congress leaders.
Modi, who criss-crossed the state from Saurashtra to Bharuch, termed the Congress as a party of “princely family” and contrasted himself as hailing from an “ordinary family”.
In Surendranagar, Modi said that the people of the district had “made a mistake” of giving some seats to the Congress in 2017, and attacked the opposition party MLAs for doing nothing good for their constituencies.
During his rally in Jambusar town of tribal-dominated Bharuch, the Prime Minister also took a swipe at Congress, saying the party remained oblivious to the needs of tribals.
Meanwhile, in Saurashtra’s coastal region, Shah congratulated the BJP government for removing encroachments and ensuring peace.
“In 2005, Narendra Modi sit on a fast for forcing the UPA government to raise the Narmada dam height…During Congress’s rule in the state, the industries in Gujarat were dying, but after BJP came to power the industrial growth was resurrected,” he said.
In Dwarka, he referred to the communal violence in the state during the Congress’s reign, said there was now peace in the entire coastal belt, and asked people to choose between peace and violence.
“Gujarat became the number one state because people voted for BJP in the past 27 years and they do not want to change their political affiliations,” he said at Mangrol in Junagadh.
At Kodinar, Shah referred to the communal violence in the state during Congress’s reign. “During Congress’s rule, out of 365 days, around 250 days were spent in curfew and hundreds of dead bodies were received. The BJP at the time, formed ‘Gunda virodhi samities’ everywhere and when BJP came to power these ‘gundas’ vanished from Saurashtra,” he said.
Later in the day, Gandhi hit back from his rally in Rajkot. He accused the BJP of trying to protect the “real culprits” behind the Morbi tragedy. He also accused the BJP of taking away rights of tribespeople.
Gandhi said he did not intend to politicise the October 30 tragedy. “But the question arises that no action was taken against those responsible for the tragedy. Security guards were arrested but those responsible were not arrested,” he told the gathering in Rajkot.
The contract for operating the bridge was with the Oreva Group, which was not named by the police in the first information report. The company’s managing director, Jaysukhbhai Patel, who inaugurated the bridge on October 26, is yet to be questioned. The civic body’s chief has been suspended and the government has faced sharp questions from the Gujarat high court.
Gandhi also said public sector enterprises were being privatised and given to rich industrialists. “When industrialists don’t pay, it is called a non-performing asset, when a farmer does not pay, they are called defaulters…I feel sad listening to all this,” he said.
“They (BJP) call you ‘vanvasi’ (forest dwellers). They do not say you are the first owners of India, but that you live in the jungles. Do you see the difference? It means they do not want you to live in cities, see your children becoming engineers, doctors, learn to fly planes, speak English,” he said at the rally at tribal-dominated Mahuva in Surat.
At his rally in Amreli, Kejriwal promised a million jobs if his party came to power, while reiterating the promise of providing 300 units of electricity free every month.
“We will provide a million government jobs to the youth and till your family members don’t get employed, we will give ₹3,000 as unemployment allowance. Gujarat too will get splendid education, free of charge for your children. In Delhi sons and daughters of auto drivers are becoming engineers, labourers are becoming doctors,” Kejriwal said.
“Surat and Saurashtra are crucial as they have the crucial Patidar votes and how they vote in the first phase might impact the second phase,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a Gujarat-based political expert.