Why the BJP is nervous even in Gujarat
It may have held the state for 27 years and still believe in the Modi trump card, but the party’s desperate late lunges are betraying its nervousness
The delayed announcement of poll dates (December 1 and 5), by design no doubt, has enabled Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to campaign extensively in their home state in the past few weeks. Modi alone has announced investments worth an estimated Rs 2 lakh crore in his four visits in one month. This does not include project announcements by Amit Shah or chief minister Bhupendra Patel, or the investments promised at the state’s DefExpo last month.
The BJP can ill afford to lose Gujarat, though counter-intuitively its strength in the state assembly has declined steadily over the past three elections. A further slide (it got 99 of 182 in 2017, well short of Shah’s grand pre-poll projections) will be deeply embarrassing for the party. In 2017, Modi, the only prime minister to campaign so extensively in state elections, alleged a Pakistani conspiracy to instal late Congress leader Ahmed Patel as chief minister. He also alleged a conspiracy against him, hatched at a dinner in the house of Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. What is it going to be this time?
The Morbi tragedy has put the BJP somewhat on the backfoot. It was also embarrassed by social media coverage of the stage-managed photo-op featuring the Prime Minister, who is seen sitting in a hastily built cardboard classroom, next to a schoolboy, looking intently at a computer. This was meant to counter the Aam Aadmi Party’s promise to transform schools and school education in the state.
The BJP has never before been on the backfoot in Gujarat, but AAP’s outreach among the youth, especially in Saurashtra, on issues of education and health, has had that effect this time round. Also, if the BJP initially believed AAP would damage the Congress more, it has had second thoughts.
AAP, which is now losing some steam after making a splash, is expected to give the BJP a fight in the 55 urban constituencies, where it seems to have the support of the youth. The cities are also BJP strongholds and the party had bagged 48 of these seats in 2012 and 44 in 2017. The extent to which AAP makes a dent in these seats will no doubt have a bearing on the final tally. Arvind Kejriwal was also left redfaced when his much-trumpeted dinner visit to the house of an autorickshaw driver was called out as a choreographed show by the autorickshaw driver himself, who went on to declare himself a Modi fan.
In 2017, AAP candidates lost their deposits in all the 30 seats the party contested. But this time, the party is making a more spirited bid, on the back of an ad blitz and ‘logistical support’ from its government in Punjab. The BJP is affecting confidence that Modi’s personal appeal will see it through, but the Prime Minister has been cautioning partymen that overconfidence and complacency will cost them and the party. The Congress, he alleges, has outsourced the task of maligning him to AAP even as it runs a door-to-door campaign in the villages.
While a common refrain in the urban areas of the state is that the Congress is not visible on the ground, the party appears to be banking on a different strategy this time. Smaller rallies and yatras in rural and tribal areas, besides ‘khatia baithaks’, seem to be the focus this time. Spearheaded by Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Raghu Sharma, the campaign is being supervised in different regions by Congress leaders in charge of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Congress insiders claim the party is focusing on 125 constituencies though it will contest in all seats. These include the 16 constituencies the party lost narrowly to the BJP in 2017 by margins ranging from 258 votes in Godhra to 2,869 votes in Visnagar.
The Congress won 77 seats in 2017, when, arguably, Modi’s appeal was stronger. That is one of the reasons why the BJP cannot write off the challenge and which is why Modi attacked the Congress for allegedly insulting Gujarat and Gujaratis by excluding the photograph of Sardar Patel in an advertisement.
The BJP’s worries became obvious when the state government announced, on October 30, a committee to recommend how to roll out a Uniform Civil Code in the state. While it denied that it had anything to do with the election, the timing gave the game away. That the party, which has been in power for the past 27 years, has been forced to take out 100 ‘Gujarat Gaurav Yatras’ also betrays its nervousness.
The BJP is also worried over reports that groups of young professionals from various cities have been holding awareness campaigns to highlight the ill effects of its policies. These meetings do not talk overtly about the election nor are participants asked to vote for or against any party. But highlighting the disastrous effects of the BJP’s policies—on the economy, on unemployment and the alarming price rise, for example—which has been whitewashed by mainstream media, has been enough to make the BJP jittery. One such meeting in Rajkot was disrupted by BJP activists and the media persuaded not to report it.
The stakes are high for all three parties in the fray. AAP would like to emerge as a credible challenger and the Congress is testing the waters with different strategies. For the BJP, it is a prestige election it must win emphatically—anything less will effectively be a slap on its face.