Gujarat Elections 2022: It’s still a two-horse race

Can the ruling BJP’s schizophrenic electoral pitch overcome anti-incumbency in Gujarat?

Congress party’s low-intensity
campaign in Gujarat’s rural areas
has made the ruling BJP jittery
Congress party’s low-intensity campaign in Gujarat’s rural areas has made the ruling BJP jittery

RK Misra

It is a two-horse race, insist all the three parties in the fray. While AAP says the contest is between it and the BJP, the latter and the Congress believe AAP to be the outlier. For Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporters and Arvind Kejriwal, the results of the election, which will be known on 8 December, are already known. ‘BJP saaf, Congress half’ (BJP will be wiped out while tally of the Congress will be halved) is the AAP battle cry. The Congress had won 77 seats last time in the 182-member house before 11 MLAs defected to BJP.

AAP’s aggressive campaign in the state is still on but observers suspect it might have peaked a trifle too early. It has also lost steam, having to fight hard to wrest control of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) going to the polls on December 4, and to cope with the steady stream of embarrassing stings and corruption charges involving its leaders in Delhi.

In Gujarat, come elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi becomes both a hero and a victim. He has transformed the state, made it so to say, he reminds people. But Congress has destroyed the state, he claims. There is no place for ‘anti-national’ Congress in the state, he roars but cautions that BJP workers must be on their toes since Congress is campaigning surreptitiously on the ground. He is abused daily by Congress leaders, he complains before boasting that he converts slurs into positive energy.

The schizophrenic campaign of the BJP appears to have created a fatigue factor. The huge crowds that the Prime Minister addressed till last month, have disappeared. Large parts of the marquee at even his rallies remain unoccupied. In the case of other ministers and leaders, the vacant parts are more visible.

One explanation is that familiarity breeds fatigue, if not contempt. Another explanation is that till last month the government machinery was available at BJP leaders’ disposal but this month, the party is responsible for the arrangements and people can no longer be forced to attend rallies.

But sparse crowds do not indicate much loss of support for BJP in at least the urban constituencies. There is no dearth of people who say they want Modi and nothing else. “Mujhe bus Modi mangta,” a Muslim voter from Naroda was quoted as saying by a newspaper. Reminded of the 2002 riots he responds by saying, “gade murde mat nikalo’ (do not dig out old skeletons).

Since BJP never leaves anything to chance, the party has pressed all its ministers at the Centre and the states, and all its chief ministers and deputy chief ministers, to campaign in the state. It even took out a bulldozer march ahead of a rally addressed by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Not all the ploys are working though.

Yogi’s inadvertent comment that under Modiji’s leadership Gujarat would develop like Uttar Pradesh did not go down too well with the audience. One of them is said to have quipped that while half of UP was selling paani puris in Gujarat, Yogi was speaking of developing Gujarat. Similarly, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s wisecrack that Rahul Gandhi increasingly resembles Saddam Hussain did not go down well with even some BJP leaders.

Observers see some degree of desperation in the Prime Minister’s latching on to a stray comment made by Congress leader Madhusudan Mistry, who, while releasing the party’s vision document, said in reply to a question that this time Congress would expose BJP’s real standing (aukat). It was good TV when the PM told an audience at Surendranagar, “Congress leaders want to show Modi his aukat. I am merely a servant having no aukat. In the past they have used words like ‘neech aadmi (a vile man), ‘maut ka saudagar’ and ‘nali ka keeda’ for me but I talk only about development. They are royals, I am merely a servant”. Will the emotional pitch work once again?

Modi is yet to invoke Pakistan. But he has indeed invoked Medha Patkar, who led the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Pointing to Patkar joining the Bharat Jodo Yatra and walking with Rahul Gandhi, he told his audience that the Congress leader was insulting Gujarat by walking with people who worked against the interests of the state.

Frustrated at the PM not raking up Pakistan, Union minister of state for Agriculture Kailash Choudhary (from Rajasthan) quipped that Pakistan wanted a Congress government in the state. Should we make Pakistan happy or ourselves, he asked rhetorically. In 2017, it was Modi himself who had raised the spectre of Pakistan conspiring to install a Congress government in the state.

As an aside, BJP has fielded two party leaders who were accused of assaulting NBA leader Medha Patkar in 2002. The assault took place at the Sabarmati Ashram in 2002 and the trial remains pending. Popatlal Shah and Amit Thacker, two of the accused, are contesting from two seats in Ahmedabad—Ellisbridge and Vejalpur. Another accused in the case, V.K. Saxena, is now the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi.

Gujarat was declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) in 2017. But as a visiting journalist from Delhi, a woman, discovered, in large parts of the state people do not have toilets. She was advised to go into the ‘jungle’ by the women at Anavai in Mahuva when she sought directions to a washroom. Where toilets have been built, there is no water in many places.

It is also a dry state and Prohibition has been in force since Independence. But hooch tragedies are hardly uncommon and a TV anchor complained during a town hall that most people coming up to her reeked of alcohol.

Slums exist in every city and slum dwellers are still waiting for the promise of pucca houses for everyone to be fulfilled. De-addiction centres even in Ahmedabad have proliferated and reports of drug hauls from Mundhra Port do get into newspapers. Temporary screens continue to come up, if not walls, when foreign dignitaries visit the capital city.

Gujarat does boast of thousands of smart schools and smart classrooms. But they are mostly in the private sector—and prohibitive. The number of government schools and hospitals has dwindled in the rural areas where resentment is growing at lack of water, electricity, education and health facilities— failures that AAP’s high-voltage campaign highlights.

That people are restive is evident in the caste panchayats being held over the past few weeks. The Arbuda Sena held a show of strength, roundly criticised the government but left the decision to support BJP or not to its incarcerated leader Vipul Choudhary. Less numerous communities like Maldharis, Prajapatis and Satwaris have been more outspoken, pledging to support the Congress in the election. It is hard to tell if they mean business or are flexing their vocal chords to strike a bargain.

The Municipality of the ‘lovable and liveable’ city of Ahmedabad, controlled by the BJP for over 27 years, took loans of Rs 700 crore since August this year to pay salaries and meet day-to-day expenses. But the hand-to-mouth municipality last month sanctioned projects worth Rs 2,000 crore last month.

So, is there anti-incumbency in the state? How will it impact the election? If the answer is blowing in the wind, few have felt it. There is a listlessness that is new and may spring a surprise. Whichever way people may eventually cast their vote, many of them seem to love the word Parivartan or change. At least they relish saying there is a parivartan ki hawa (winds of change). Is that what is making BJP a tad nervous? Why else would BYM workers be asked to take the pledge that they would work for the BJP with their heart, sweat, resources and the gun (tan, mann, dhan aur gun)?

Whatever the outcome, the BJP does seem rattled by the ‘absence’ of the Congress on the ground. Congress this time has studiously ignored BJP’s barbs and abuses, rarely bothering to retort. There has been no effort to match BJP’s grandstanding or AAP’s high-voltage media campaign and verbal calisthenics, admits party spokesperson Manish Doshi. It was planned to stay close to the ground and carry out campaigns in small groups and from door-to-door.

The party has also been smarter. Ignoring barbs that Congress had left no opportunity to insult Sardar Patel, Congress spokespersons wonder why the Sardar Patel cricket Stadium was renamed Narendra Modi stadium in 2020.

While the joke is that Congress has been affected by the ‘love thy enemy’ spirit of Bharat Jodo Yatra, the strategy has caught the BJP off guard. Used to slanging matches, the total silence to tirades against members of the Nehru-Gandhi family has baffled BJP workers. Indeed the ‘family’ has largely stayed away from campaigning unlike last time when Rahul Gandhi led a high-visibility campaign of rallies and road shows.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, spearheading the Congress campaign, calls the hype of AAP as a distraction. AAP is just BJP’s Team B, quips Raghu Sharma, AICC general secretary in-charge of Gujarat.

Also, unlike in 2017, senior party leaders like former Gujarat congress president Bharatsinh Solanki, son of late Madhavsinh Solanki— whose record of bagging 149 seats in 1985 still remains unbroken— Siddharth Patel, son of late chief minister Chimanbhai Patel, and national party spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil are not contesting but managing the campaign of others like Jignesh Mevani, Arjun Modvadia, Paresh Dhanani, Tushar Chaudhary and Indranil Rajyaguru, who are in the fray

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