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Modi stands tall as Gujarat goes to polls

Narendra Modi is overshadowing everyone as Gujarat goes to the polls in an explosive battle that is bound to impact India's national politics and possibly its secular ethos.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2007 11:47 IST

Chief Minister Narendra Modi is overshadowing everyone and everything as Gujarat goes to the polls on Tuesday in an explosive battle that is bound to impact India's national politics and possibly its secular ethos.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have plunged into the electoral arena with a single-minded aim: to oust Modi, who has emerged as the country's most vocal champion of Hindutva.

In the first phase of the two-phase elections, Saurashtra, Kutch and south Gujarat will see balloting on Tuesday. These regions comprise 87 assembly constituencies and are witnessing a cutthroat contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a Congress backed by BJP rebels.

The sprawling Saurashtra region - which could determine the fate of Modi - has 52 seats, the smaller Kutch six, and south Gujarat 29 seats.

The fight for Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi's home state, has become truly vicious.

In an implicit attack on Modi, an aggressive Gandhi used the words "merchant of death" at a campaign meeting. The otherwise soft-spoken Manmohan Singh did not mince words when he said that only BJP supporters were safe in Modi's Gujarat.

In his characteristic style, Modi hit back, lampooning the Congress president, his favourite target. Then he did something that stunned everyone: he virtually justified the alleged cold-blooded staged killing by the police of terror suspect Sohrabuddin Sheikh.

That remark produced volcanic reverberations. Political parties rallied against Modi and the Election Commission sought his explanation. But he would not back off.

Quickly, the campaign for Hindutva that Modi won decisively in 2002 and which he in the run-up to the December 11 and 16 polls changed to "Moditva" - or soft Hindu nationalism laced with development issues - again bounced back to Hindutva.

Political analysts admit that Modi has emerged as so central a character in the elections that if he were to win, all credit would go to the man and barely any to the BJP, which in Gujarat is a badly divided house.

A BJP win will be a great morale booster to a party still struggling to accept the 2004 general elections loss. If the Congress wins, it might order early polls for the Lok Sabha, with a confidence that the BJP cannot bounce back.

To Modi himself, it is now or never. Having rubbed scores of people the wrong way in his own party and affiliated units like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) he is determined to prove he is the king of Gujarat.

Saurashtra gave a majority of its 52 seats to the BJP in 2002. That may be a difficult target to achieve this time considering the bitter opposition to Modi from the area's tallest politician, former chief minister and chief BJP dissident Keshubhai Patel.

Keshubhai is a popular figure among Leuva Patels, who have been the backbone of the BJP in the region for over two decades. It is from Saurashtra that the Congress has put up five candidates who had rebelled against the BJP leadership.

Besides the dissidence, anti-incumbency and farmers' anger over lack of electricity are issues the Congress is banking on.

The BJP is trying to play up the development work carried out under the leadership of Modi. This has many takers, particularly in urban areas.

BJP leader Nitin Bharadwaj told IANS: "I am confident the dissidence factor will not work. Those who had to go away have gone. We continue to have a strong base and are sure of a good performance by the party. People are happy with us."

The Congress is gaining mainly by default. As its leader Narendrasinh Jadeja puts it: "Dissidents have done a lot of damage to the BJP. With our traditional voters and those angry BJP supporters, I am sure the Congress will sweep."

Kutch too has witnessed major dissidence in the BJP led by another former chief minister, Suresh Mehta. But the presence of 20 independents has made predictions for the area very difficult.

In south Gujarat, the Congress is looking to make gains particularly in the tribal belt and Surat city, which was devastated by floods in 2006. The country's diamond capital, Surat, too has seen strong dissidence that makes things difficult for BJP.

According to social scientist Achyut Yagnik, Modi is again banking on hardline Hindutva because "his claims about development and Gujarati pride are not working".

One advantage for Modi is that the Congress lacks a leader in Gujarat capable of standing up to him. Also, Modi is a great orator, capable of whipping up passions and with a seeming ability to turn any situation to his advantage.

On Tuesday, 17.8 million voters are eligible to vote, to pick from among 669 candidates. Of these, 8.5 million voters are women. The number of women candidates is 53. There are no straight contests.

The largest assembly constituency in terms of voters is Chorasi in Surat with 1.5 million voters and in terms of area it is Abdasa in Kutch. The smallest constituency is Manavadar in Rajkot with 125,902 voters. Porbander has the maximum of 15 candidates.