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On test in Gujarat: From Modi again spearheading BJP campaign to faceless Cong bid to challenger Kejriwal

For the BJP the Gujarat polls would be a bellwether for the Assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2023 leading up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

gujarat polls 2022Voters waiting to cast their vote at a polling booth at Limbdi, Surendranagar. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

The 2022 Gujarat Assembly election has been defined by the high-voltage, sustained campaign of the ruling BJP and the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that began with their respective principal leaders engaging with the electorate nearly eight months prior to the polls, and the perceived absence of such a campaign by the principal Opposition Congress, which indicated the stakes placed by these parties on this election.

With the stage set for second and final phase of voting on December 5, for the BJP the Gujarat polls would be a bellwether for the Assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2023 leading up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, says a senior party leader.

For the AAP, it will be a test not only of the party as an emerging third force in national politics, but also of its supremo and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who invested as much energy and time in the Gujarat polls as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and whether Gujaratis accept him as a challenger and are wooed by his guarantees. The BJP has dismissed Kejriwal as an “outsider” although the AAP has found some acceptance in Gujarat’s migrant melting pot Surat among Patidars, a dominant community and the mainstay of the BJP’s formidable base in the state.

Depending on its vote share, the Gujarat election will also decide if the AAP can become a national party, its confidence bolstered by its triumph in Punjab Assembly polls earlier this year, whose CM Bhagwant Mann has spent as much time as Kejriwal on the Gujarat campaign trail.

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Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann waves at supporters during a roadshow ahead of Gujarat Assembly elections, at Bardoli in Surat district, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (PTI Photo)

The election will also be a test of sorts for youth leaders like Hardik Patel, who is fighting his first-ever election, after having created a churn with the quota agitation several years ago, that scared the BJP first in the 2015 local body elections and then in the 2017 Assembly polls. The election is also a litmus test for Jignesh Mevani, who rose as a Dalit leader after the Una flogging incident and won as an Independent candidate in 2017 with the Congress’s backing and is now fighting on a Congress ticket, as well as for Alpesh Thakor, the OBC leader who won as a Congress nominee in 2017, joined the BJP, lost the by-election, and is now fighting on a BJP ticket from a seat, Gandhinagar South, he is not familiar with.

Congress leader Jignesh Mevani speaks during a public meeting ahead of the Gujarat Assembly elections, in Ahmedabad, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (PTI Photo)

In the absence of any dominant Hindutva narrative, this will also be a trial run for an election based on “mool muddey (basic issues)” as former leader of opposition Paresh Dhanani puts it.

Despite being held so close to the coronavirus pandemic that is still on, the election made only some references to Covid, with the BJP claiming about expediting vaccination and the Congress promising Rs four lakh each for families of its victims.

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Both Kejriwal and PM Modi began spending more time in Gujarat since May, with the latter launching several projects as part of his constant engagement with the people of his home state. Modi’s campaign narrative centred on “double engine sarkar” turned into the slogan, “Phir ek bar, Modi sarkar”, towards the end, even as the BJP’s original campaign slogan “We built this Gujarat” got relegated to a background score at the party rallies, given the criticism it faced about being “arrogant and exclusionary”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign for the Gujarat Assembly elections, in Ahmedabad, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (PTI Photo)

Former education minister and veteran BJP leader Bhupendrasinh Chudasama claims, “AAP has no future (in Gujarat).” He harps on the familiar line about how even leaders like former CMs, Chimanbhai Patel, Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela, could not launch a third front in Gujarat despite rooted in the state and being “recognised names even in villages”.

The All India Congress Committee (AICC)’s Gujarat in-charge Raghu Sharma claims that the Congress would form the government, adding that the party will win 65 of the 89 seats that polled in the first phase. Last time, the BJP had won 48 of these seats with the rest going to the Congress or its allies.

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After the close contest of the 2017 polls, when the Congress was just 20 seats short of the BJP which had won 99 seats, the AICC leadership entrusted the responsibility of the Gujarat election with Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and Sharma, his former minister.

Compared to its 2017 campaign, when then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi did 40 meetings in Gujarat besides visiting several temples, the party’s campaign this time was marked by Gandhi’s virtual absence as he addressed only one election rally.

The Congress leaders brush aside the rows over Narmada dam activist Medha Patkar joining the Bharat Jodo Yatra, ex-party MP Madhusudan Mistry’s “aukat” remark and party president Mallikarjun Kharge’s “Ravan” jibe, attributing them to the “BJP’s diversionary tactics”.

Medha Patkar and Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. (Twitter/@bharatjodo)

“Large meetings only give a perception, they don’t convert into votes,” says Sharma, adding how the Congress this time strengthened its booth management. Several poll strategists and even some BJP leaders feel that although thanks to his high-profile electioneering Kejriwal could take away some votes of the BJP and the Congress, but the AAP might still not end up with replicating in the state, what it did in the Surat Municipal Corporation election in 2021, when it edged out the Congress to garner the second largest vote share after the BJP.

Both the BJP and the Congress say the AAP lacked what it takes to become the main opposition — an influential local face and visible foot soldiers. Praising the “committed Congress workers”, a senior BJP leader even said, “For thirty years they have been out of power, they don’t have a leader like Narendrabhai, but look at their dedication.” The last time the Congress was in power in the state was in 1985 when it had won 149 seats, a victory credited to the sympathy wave in the wake of the assassination of then PM Indira Gandhi. However, the BJP has not yet beaten the Congress record of a 141-seat victory of 1980, which it had secured mainly due to the KHAM (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) consolidation.

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The Congress candidate from Amreli, Dhanani, says this is the first time in many years that “we lost people but the rumblings of our loss were heard in Kamalam (the state BJP headquarters)”. Out of its candidates for the total 182 seats, at least 19 BJP nominees in this election are originally from the grand old party, which some Congress leaders claim, has rankled the BJP cadre.

Dhanani says, “This is the first time we are hearing more about rebellion in the BJP than the Congress,” claiming that about 69 Congressmen have quit the party so far. Tribal leader Anant Patel, who is the Congress candidate from Vansda, says these exits have given leaders like him a “chance to rise” in the party.

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Explaining the BJP’s “desperation”, Sharma says, “Can you imagine this — a Congress MLA quits and the next day ends up with a BJP ticket?“ He was referring to the case of Bhagwan Barad, who quit the Congress days before the last day of filing nomination and was then given a BJP ticket from Talala seat. He also cites Modi’s presence in Gujarat to reinforce his point, saying “What is the need for the Prime Minister to spend so much time here? He should just come once.”

Unlike 2017, when Modi as the BJP’s star campaigner, did a few public meetings, ending it with a grand ride on the seaplane from the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to the Dharoi dam in Sabarkantha, he returned to the basics for the 2022, campaigning like a candidate and wrapping it up with two roadshows to cover over 50 kilometres in Ahmedabad city, which is considered to be the BJP’s bastion. He also did a roadshow in Surat where the BJP has been winning all the 12 urban seats. In both elections, the PM’s appeal has been an emotional pitch to the Gujaratis to “strengthen him”.

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Party leaders justify it as “Modi’s way” and talk about his intense campaign in 2005 for the Municipal Corporation elections in Ahmedabad that helped the BJP wrest it from the Congress.

In 2017, the two projects Modi launched as the Gujarat government’s show-piece projects — the Ghogha-Dahej Ro Ro Ferry service and the Sea plane — both ran into rough weather. The ferry service was re-launched in 2020, this time from Hazira instead of Dahej, while the seaplane is yet to resume services.

Even as Kejriwal has made a strong appeal to “Congress voters” to vote for the AAP, Sharma says the party will end up in “disappointment and disappear”.

Whatever be the outcome, the 2022 election will be marked by several electoral experiments. It will decide if revdis (freebies) work in Gujarat, or announcing a CM face before the polls, or launching a band of young leaders to fight the election on real issues, or if getting the PM to lead from the front works. It would also decide if the grand old party, out of power in Gujarat for three decades, can still remain relevant in the state.

First published on: 04-12-2022 at 19:02 IST
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