The BJP, which has been ruling Gujarat for the past 19-odd years, is contesting a battle of prestige in the upcoming Assembly elections in the state. The Assembly elections are being held at a time when the BJP is ruling both at the Centre and in the state, as it was in the 2002 state polls. But it is for first time that both Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) and BJP president (Amit Shah) hail from the state.
Despite these advantages, the BJP may not find it easy to win the Gujarat Assembly elections to be held in a couple of months from now. No wonder, the party has pulled all the stops to ensure that it emerges victorious. A defeat in Gujarat will be embarrassing for the BJP and Modi-Shah duo.
Besides threatening to weaken the grip of PM Modi and Shah on the party, a loss in Gujarat will also have a bearing on the subsequent Assembly elections to be held in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura and also the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Without taking any chances, the BJP has launched an offensive. Among the contesting political parties, BJP has been the first one to sound the election bugle in the state. The ground-breaking ceremony of the country's first bullet train was held in the presence of Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinze Abe in Ahmedabad with much fanfare.
Also, the Sardar Sarovar Dam was inaugurated on September 17, Modi's 67th birthday. On Friday, the prime minister flagged off the Mahamana Express train which would run between Vadodara in Gujarat and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, while Modi is a sitting MP from Varanasi and he had also won from Vadodara in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He resigned from the Vadodara seat.
The BJP's painstaking efforts and the optics associated with them indicate that the party faces some serious challenges. Here are they:
The BJP has been ruling Gujarat continuously since 1998. So far the state has seen four chief ministers - Keshubhai Patel (1998-2001), Modi (2001-2014), Anandiben Patel (2014-2016) and Vijay Rupani since 2016.
In these 19 years, Modi ruled the state for the longest time. The period before and after him has not been as stable as it was during his governance. He replaced Keshubhai Patel as chief minister after the BJP lost Sabarkantha Lok Sabha and Sabarmati Assembly by-elections in 2001 and the government faced corruption charges.
After the BJP won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he moved to Delhi while passing on the Gujarat CM's chair to Anandiben Patel. Within two years of Anandiben's rule, the BJP government faced turbulent times. Faced with no option, the party decided to replace her with Rupani. Had Anandiben continued in her chair, the BJP would have lost Gujarat in most likelihood.
Had Anandiben continued in her chair, the BJP would have lost Gujarat in most likelihood
is no Modi. The BJP would have been almost sure of victory had Modi continued as Gujarat CM. But under Rupani there is no guarantee that the party would register a victory for the sixth consecutive term. Rupani does not hold the same grip over the party and administration as Modi did. The euphoria that was witnessed during Modi rule in the state has waned. The voters' mood cannot be said to be as favourable towards BJP as it was during Modi rule. Anti-incumbency may have set in.
2) Missing Modi
Soon after Modi left for Delhi, Gujarat dipped into a turbulent phase. Anandiben faced corruption charges and accusations of nepotism. Her tenure also saw protests from several quarters, including the Patels and Dalits, and infighting in the BJP. There were unheard of during Modi's rule. Modi is being missed in his home state.
3) Patel-Patidars and Dalits
Gujarat, under chief minister Anandiben Patel, witnessed a massive pro-reservation protest led by Hardik Patel in August 2015. This led to a clampdown on a few cities, loss of ten lives and property, and a loss of face for the BJP. Internet communication in cities like Surat and Ahmedabad was also suspended like it was in Kashmir. Hardik was lodged in jail for several months on charges of sedition.
The agitation contributed to BJP's defeat in November 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. With Patels constituting about 18 per cent of the Gujarat population, they may spoil the BJP's chances in the state. The agitation reflected poorly on Anandiben's hold over administration because she herself comes from the Patel community who have been traditional voters of the BJP. She failed to efficiently handle the Patidar-Patel agitation.
Rupani does not hold the same grip over the party and administration as Modi did.
The Patel stir was followed by the Dalit agitation in July 2016. The Dalits protested the stripping and brutal atrocities against four of their community over skinning of dead cows in Una village of Gir Somnath district. The protests resulted in the death of two persons, including a policeman.
The Patel and Dalit protests presented a stark contrast to the governance under Modi. Barring the Godhra train burning and the subsequent riots of 2002, the state was by and large peaceful till he shifted to Delhi.
The BJP in Gujarat witnessed its worst phase since 1996 when Shankersinh Vaghela had rebelled and broken away from the ruling BJP. A sizeable section of the Patels and Dalits may choose to not vote for the BJP.
4) Development, jobs
The Gujarat model of development is still identified with Modi. It legacy did not pass on to either Anandiben or Rupani. Some sectors, such as electricity and road, would have witnessed development during the BJP rule but most of these have generally remained confined to the urban areas. The remote areas are still crying for attention particularly in sectors such as health, education and infrastructure.
Rising unemployment has remained a major concern for the people of Gujarat. For instance, according to surveys, more than 80 per cent engineers in the state are jobless.
5) Social media campaign
Whatever is the final outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections, the BJP surely is the loser in the ongoing war on the social media. The Congress and Hardik Patek group have scored over the BJP by introducing the hashtag "Vikas gando thayo chhe" (development has gone crazy) on Facebook and Twitter.
Thousands of memes, caricatures, cartoons, images and videos have been posted on social media with this slogan in a bid to puncture BJP's claims of carrying out development in the state. Hundreds of posts are added everyday with this hashtag.
Even Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is a late entrant to the social media war, has launched an aggressive assault on the ruling BJP with its hashtag "Adikham raheshe" (stay firm). Through its slogan, the AAP is trying to educate the people to stay firm on development issues and to not get carried away by emotional and polarising issues. For instance, without naming the BJP, AAP's slogan said "they" will try to keep you engaged on Hindu-Muslim issues, but you stay firm on unity of the nation... they will try to talk to you about (gomutra) cow urine, but you stay firm on the price of petrol... they will try to take you to Hindu-Muslim topic but you stay firm on issues like employment, gas cylinder and ration and they will talk about constructing the Ram Mandir but you stay firm on the issue of hospital.
The BJP introduced two hashtags - "Congress jawaab aape" (Congress should respond) and "janata jaane chhey" (the people know everything). However, the messages posted with these tags have largely remained academic and boring. They lack the fun element of Congress' 'Vikas gando thayo chhey' and the aggression of AAP's 'Adikham raheshe'.
Though social media may not decide the fate of the parties contesting the election but it will surely swing some votes, particularly of the youth.
The trader community has been the most loyal voters of the BJP since its inception. They have helped the party also when it was not in power. However, the same community has been at the receiving end of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which was implemented on April 1.
Traders of several cities have protested against GST. The textile traders of Surat protested for a long time against the implementation of the new tax regime. The traders rue the monumental documentation work and loss in profits. If not addressed, their ire may adversely affect the BJP in the elections.
Gujarat has usually seen a bipolar contest, with the electoral battle taking place between tradition rivals BJP and Congress. But for the first time, the contest is going to be multi-cornered. Besides AAP, which has thrown down the gauntlet in the ring of Gujarat Assembly elections for the first time, Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is also entering into the fray.
Besides AAP and NCP, former Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela has launched a front — "Jan Vikalp" (People's Alternative). Vaghela, who was in the BJP before joining the Congress, would contest against both the Congress and the BJP.
While NCP and Vaghela's front may largely eat into the Congress' votes, AAP is likely to split the votes of the BJP as well.
With such threats looming large, the BJP would have to pull up its socks and address these issues if it has to pull off a victory in Gujarat. This may not be a tall order finally. But these issues may pose a serious challenge to the ruling party and may have a cumulative impact of combined together.