A little over a year after it changed the entire Gujarat Cabinet, the BJP will go to polls in the first phase of the Assembly elections on Thursday as it attempts to return to power for the sixth straight term.
Around 2.39 crore voters are eligible to exercise their franchise to elect MLAs in 89 constituencies in Saurashtra, Kutch, and south Gujarat, with the BJP looking to regain the ground it lost in Saurashtra in the 2017 Assembly elections. For the ruling party, the main competition will come from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress. The electoral contest between the BJP and the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit will be especially intense in Surat. Both camps aggressively campaigned against each other in an attempt to bag the 12 seats in the city.
In 2017, of the 89 constituencies, the BJP won 48 and the Congress bagged 38 seats. Two seats went to the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), which was in alliance with the Congress at the time, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) won one.
In Saurashtra, the agrarian region with 48 seats, the challenge for the BJP is to increase its tally from the 19 constituencies it managed to win last time, while the Congress will look to hold on to the gains it made five years ago and build on their success. The Congress’s seat count of 28 in Saurashtra in 2017 was a gain of 13 seats, while the BJP’s tally came down by 11 seats. It was the ruling party’s worst performance in Saurashtra since 1995 when it formed the government in Gujarat for the first time.
But in the last five years, 10 Congress MLAs from Saurashtra defected to the BJP or extended support to the ruling party. They are Kunvarji Bavaliya (Jasdan), Parsottam Sabariya (Dhrangadhra), Jawahar Chavda (Manavadar), Vallabh Dharaviya (Jamnagar Rural), Pravin Maru (Gadhada), JV Kakadiya (Dhari), Soma Ganda Patel (Limbdi), Brijesh Merja (Morbi), Bhagwan Barad (Talala), and Harshad Ribadiya (Visavadar). Save Sabariya, Dharaviya, Maru, Patel, and Merja, the others are BJP candidates this time from their respective seats.
The Congress’s Saurashtra performance in 2017 was propelled by support from the Patidar community, which had been traditional BJP supporters since the mid-1980s. But the community drifted towards the Congress five years ago following protests against the BJP-led government over demands for Other Backward Class (OBC) status. The quota agitation stir’s leader Hardik Patel is the BJP candidate from Viramgam in Ahmedabad district this time. Pointing out that the quota agitation has long fizzled out, BJP leaders have claimed that Patidars will back the ruling party this time around.
The first phase covers several Patidar and tribal-dominated seats and will be crucial for the ruling party’s stated objective of breaking all Assembly election records. Among the BJP’s objectives is winning most of the 27 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs). In Phase 1, seven of the constituencies at stake are reserved for Scheduled Caste (SC) communities and 17 are ST seats.
For the BJP, a stumbling block in the run-up to the elections was ticket distribution. In the first phase, seven BJP members filed nominations against the party’s candidates, most of them as Independents and one each as Congress and AAP nominees.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is leading the BJP’s campaign and has addressed 25 public meetings since November 3, when the Elections Commission notified the poll schedule. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been the second-most prominent face to campaign for the party. The party has also deployed a battery of national leaders such as chief ministers Yogi Adityanath, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and Pramod Sawant, Maharashtra Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and its national president JP Nadda.
The BJP aggressively played up the Hindutva card by raking up issues such as the 2002 riots, terrorism, “love jihad”, and the Shraddha Walkar murder case. In its poll manifesto, the ruling party promised an anti-radicalisation cell and the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code.
The AAP ran an aggressive campaign, especially in Saurashtra and south Gujarat. The electoral plank of the Kejriwal-led party is based on its guarantees such as free education, free electricity, employment, and free religious pilgrimages for the elderly.
On Wednesday, Kejriwal issued a video message requesting the people of Gujarat to opt for change. Speaking in Gujarati Kejriwal, who began with the common greeting in Gujarat, “Jai Shri Krishna”, said, “Twenty-seven years are a lot, no? This time try to change. Change is the rule of life. Even trees change their leaves every year. Give AAP one chance. I will never break your trust. Now, the atmosphere is also changing, cold is also increasing. Take care of everyone in the family. Jai Shree Krishna!”
The Congress too has promised voters things such as free electricity, implementation of the old pension scheme, and jobs. Its campaign, however, was low-key, with some of its top national leaders largely staying away from the campaign.
In six assembly constituencies, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has fielded candidates. These seats are Mangrol, Khambhalia, Bhuj, Mandvi, Surat East, and Limbayat.
Notable names in the fray
There are a total of 788 candidates in the fray in Phase 1, including 718 men and 70 women. Some of the notable BJP candidates who will be battling it out on Thursday are Kanti Amrutiya (Morbi), Kunvarji Bavaliya (Jasdan), Jayesh Radadiya (Jetpur), Rivaba Jadeja (Jamnagar North), Pabubha Manek (Dwarka), Babu Bokhiriya (Porbandar), Parshottam Solanki, Mukesh Patel (Olpad), Harsh Sanghavi (Majura), Jitu Vaghani (Bhavnagar West), and Raghavji Patel (Jamnagar Rural).
The first phase will also see the fate of some top AAP leaders being decided. Among them are its CM face Isudan Gadhvi (Khambhalia), state president Gopal Italia (Katargam), and former Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leaders Alpesh Kathiriya (Varachha) and Dharmik Malaviya (Olpad).
From the Congress, leaders such as Naushad Solanki (Dasada), Lalit Kagathara (Tankara), Indranil Rajyaguru (Rajkot East), Vikram Madam (Khambhalia), Arjun Modhwadiya (Porbandar), Punja Vansh (Una), Paresh Dhanani, Virji Thummar (Lathi), Ambarish Der (Rajula), Kanu Kalsariya (Mahuva), and Anant Patel (Vansda) will be contesting in the first phase.
This is the first election where a section of the electorate will have a chance to vote from home. This facility has been made available to 9.87 lakh voters above the age of 80 years and 4.03 lakh voters with disabilities. The Election Commission (EC) distributed around eight lakh forms for voters to avail of this facility but only over two per cent of voters have opted for it.
The other initiative is monitoring workers in industries if they have cast their votes or not. The EC has already signed MoUs with various industrial associations for this and asked them to give a holiday or a break to workers on polling day.
“We have already conveyed the message to our sister associations for giving workers a break or holiday for polling. Though we cannot force workers to vote, all industrial units have also been asked to monitor the number of workers and share whatever figures possible with us so that we have at least an estimate,” said Pathik Patwari, president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI).
This is also the first election in the state where details of criminal cases faced by candidates needed to be published in newspapers.
With inputs from Avinash Nair and Rashi Mishra in Ahmedabad