Elections to the 14th Gujarat Assembly are significant for several reasons. Gujarat is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, which supported his elevation by giving his party, the BJP, a clean sweep of its 26 Lok Sabha seats. It will show the way forward to the BJP in its march towards the 2019 General Election - Assembly elections follow in the key states of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It will also be a test of the much-vaunted Gujarat model of development.
The year 1995 was the last time there was a Congress government in the state, that’s 22 years ago. The BJP has no rival who can claim credit for the progress the state has seen, but there is no one who can share the blame either. No government can please everybody and one ruling for over two decades carries a lot of anti-incumbency baggage.
Add to that Gujarat’s history of volatile youth politics. Student protests against high mess bills and poor quality of food in Ahmedabad in December 1973 spiralled into the Nav Nirman movement against Chimanbhai Patel’s government, which grew into Jayaprakash Narayan’s total revolution.
India Today cover story, Feeling the Heat, for November 6, 2017.
It is instructive to see the three young challengers from the state, each representing a particular interest group that feels left behind by the slogan of "Hun chhun vikas, hun chhun Gujarat (I am development, I am Gujarat)". Hardik Patel caught the imagination of young people during the violent pro-Patel reservation stir in Gujarat in 2015. Alpesh Thakor organised the Gujarat Thakor Sena to raise awareness of liquor addiction within his OBC Kshatriya community and then formed the OBC Ekta Morcha to deal with problems of farmers and unemployed youth before joining the Congress. Jignesh Mevani rose to prominence during the Una agitation in 2016 when a group of Dalits was assaulted by cow vigilantes.
These leaders are joined by a newly energised Rahul Gandhi, who has been taking the battle into the BJP camp by addressing one-on-one meetings with trade unions, dairy workers and small traders. This is not just the BJP’s traditional voter base but also those adversely affected by demonetisation and GST.
The 47-year-old vice-president of the Congress party has been helped by sharper speeches and a smart social media strategy which counters the BJP’s vitriol with uncommon wit. He has made BJP’s tanashahi (autocratic rule) an issue.
Despite the churn in Gujarat politics, as the India Today TV poll shows, all this may not be enough to defeat either the well-oiled election machinery that BJP president Amit Shah has put in place or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s undeniable charisma.
Having travelled twice with the prime minister during his campaign when he was chief minister, I can vouch for the spell he has cast on his state. Last time, the BJP won 115 out of the 182 Assembly seats. It hopes to better that since Modi is the prime minister now. He has raised the stakes in this battle himself by making five visits home in the last month, and announcing projects worth a total of over Rs 15,000 crore.
Deputy editor Uday Mahurkar, who has covered Gujarat for India Today for three decades and has chronicled Modi’s rise in detail, detects simmering discontent against the BJP in spite of its high voltage aggressive campaign. The question is how much of this will actually turn into votes against the BJP.
The party’s message is of development and corruption-free government. The Congress, despite its seeming renewal, suffers from an acute absence of organised ground support. It has too many leaders and not enough workers. The departure of the wily Shankersinh Vaghela could also be a spoiler for them.
The fact is that based on the last Assembly election results, the gap between the Congress and BJP is substantial. That apart, what earlier seemed like a cakewalk for the BJP no longer seems so. The heat is on, and Prime Minister Modi’s prestige is on the line. A win may not be enough for the party. It has to win well.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Feeling the Heat; November 6, 2017.)