Gujarat’s political importance is greater this time because both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are from the state.
Another crucial round of Assembly elections is around the corner even as a series of setbacks in recent weeks has begun to make the BJP fortunes look uncertain, if not exactly vulnerable. The terms of the state assemblies in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh end in January 2018. Previously, the Election Commission conducted elections in Himachal in November as snowfall in the upper reaches of the state makes polls hazardous. Voting in Gujarat, however, is held in December but counting of votes in both states is taken up simultaneously. Because the schedule of polls in the two states are announced at the same time, electioneering in Gujarat is much longer than in Himachal. In any case, Gujarat’s political significance is far greater than the hill state’s, which elects just four Lok Sabha members.
Gujarat’s political importance is greater this time because both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are from the state. Mr Modi retained his Varanasi seat over Vadodara after being elected from both the constituencies in 2014 out of political considerations. Since then, he repeatedly staked claim to being a UP-wallah. Yet, Gujarat undeniably remains his political home and it is imperative for the BJP to at least match, if not improve, the margin of victory it secured in UP. Anything less would be seen as evidence of the Modi wave waning. The BJP needs to emphatically underscore that its political dominance continues despite lacklustre stewardship of Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani and their collective failure at tackling the reservation agitation by Patels and checking dalit unrest. This can be best done if the BJP betters its performance of 2002, when the party won 127 seats with a vote share of 49.85 per cent. In the two subsequent polls with Mr Modi as chief minister, the BJP won 117seats in 2007 and 115 in 2012 with declining voteshares of 49.12 and 47.85 per cent. Moreover, Mr Shah has already raised the stakes by setting a target of 150 seats. Failure to realise his own objective will be politically humiliating for Mr Shah as well as his boss.
To ensure a smooth ride back to power, Mr Shah kicked off his campaign early (September 10) with a town-hall programme in Ahmedabad replete with questions put on Facebook, Twitter and the party website. Not to be outdone, Mr Modi planned an entire jamboree for two days with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in tow. For the first time in history, a state guest visited India without stopping at the national capital. Almost three years after his failed public wooing of Chinese President Xi Jingping, the itinerary of Mr Abe’s visit to Ahmedabad underscored Mr Modi’s electoral compulsions. While the laying of the foundation stone of the high-speed bullet train project was planned with the obvious intention of impressing Gujarat’s voters, the Prime Minister’s decision to pay an unprecedented visit to the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque was most striking. It needs recalling that in 2011, when he embarked on a Sadbhavana programme, Mr Modi was offered a skull cap by a Muslim cleric. His refusal sparked a controversy and several critics viciously criticised Mr Modi for insensitivity towards religious minorities. Nitish Kumar, ironically in Mr Modi’s camp now, sarcastically stated that in India leaders must at times wear a skull cap and occasionally allow a tilak to be put on the forehead. Mr Modi did not make any such gesture when inside the mosque, but the symbolism cannot be missed because he could have taken the visitor to any other monument that is representative of Ahmedabad’s heritage.
Surveys have shown that Muslim support for the BJP in Gujarat has slowly grown over the past decade and half. Although its extent is not extensive, Mr Modi senses an opening and thus his overture. But his decision to send a soft signal to Muslims demonstrates that he is on shaky terrain insofar as his core constituency is concerned. Mr Modi followed his visit with Mr Abe with another visit last Sunday when he inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam and also addressed a public meeting in Amreli in the crucial Saurashtra region, that Hardik Patel has been pounding hard. Although both meetings were government functions, Mr Modi’s political messaging was unambiguous. The most significant takeaways from Mr Modi’s speech after inaugurating the dam were threefold. First, he reached out to the tribals. This indicated his awareness of the negative reaction of the displacement of the tribal population due to the increase in the dam’s height. Tribals, comprising 15 per cent of the electorate, are traditional Congress voters in the state and their alienation from the BJP increased after the attacks on the Christian tribal community in 1998. In 2007, however, Mr Modi successfully secured their backing. His overture was aimed at ensuring that tribals do not return to the Congress fold.
The second characteristic of Mr Modi’s speech was he constantly posed himself as the deliverer of the Sardar Sarovar project while painting environmentalists and their backers as enemies of Gujaratis. He claimed that not just the Congress, but the World Bank too was against Gujarat’s development for flagging environmental concerns. Third, Mr Modi made no mention of past goalposts and objectives and instead projected just future dreams. He did not refer to schemes like Make in India, which has a potential to benefit people by providing jobs.
Instead of talking about jobs, Mr Modi laid emphasis on Swachchh Bharat and New India, his latest pipedream.
Till date Mr Modi has not exhibited the confidence of past elections. He has also joined the campaign too early compared to other states. He exhibits signs of awareness on economic slowdown and lack of popular support for GST having the potential to make the electoral path extremely difficult. This is the Opposition’s best chance to politically embarrass Mr Modi because an unconvincing victory will just be a consolation win. Westerlies are clearly blowing towards him and Mr Modi has to weather the western disturbance this time.