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For Gujarat, a time to choose

New Delhi, Dec. 11: Gujarat votes tomorrow on an agenda set by Narendra Modi. His opponents say it is a battle for the “soul of India”. Modi himself says his concern is limited to the five crore people of the state.

Here, in Ahmedabad, the state’s most important city, the urban sprawl is a blaze of neon lights and a cacophony of honking traffic at night. In the Congress and BJP offices, there is the customary cockiness that political leaders must exhibit on election-eve.

“We will get more than the figure we achieved last time,” claims the state BJP president, Rajendrasinh Rana. The party’s chief campaign manager, Arun Jaitley, concurs. His counterpart in the Congress, Kamal Nath, predicts an upset for Modi. “People have realised the futility of his Hindutva card.”

“I think the BJP is ahead. The Congress has been trying to catch up only in the last couple of weeks,” says political analyst Achyut Yagnik.

In Ahmedabad, Modi’s BJP appears headed for victory. Farther westwards, that possibility grows slimmer with distance. In the last polls in 1998, the BJP won 116 seats in the 182-member House on the strength of its victory in Saurashtra and Kutch, where its candidates raced ahead in 52 of 58 constituencies.

This time, by common consent, the BJP is on weaker ground.

Over the past week, the Hindutva card has been used again to ratchet up the campaign to a shrill pitch. Since the alleged “fatwa” on Id last Friday, the BJP and the Sangh parivar have fanned out, using every media to seek a consolidation of Hindu votes. In speech after speech, Modi and friends have talked of the “fatwa” and urged supporters to vote in large numbers.

The BJP assesses that a high turnout tomorrow will mean that it will have sealed victory. Unlike in many other states, where a high turnout is often interpreted as a sign of “anti-incumbency” (witness Kashmir where turnout was higher than conventional standards), here it will be largely interpreted as a pro-Modi vote. The highest turnout recorded in Gujarat has been 64 per cent in 1995 when the BJP won 120-odd seats.

The usual turnout in Assembly elections in Gujarat has ranged between 45 and 55 per cent.

The Congress under Shankersinh Vaghela has pitted caste against Hindutva, particularly in north and central Gujarat which is where the BJP must make inroads to compensate for the anticipated loss in Saurashtra. The manner in which the elections have played out, this is also the riot-zone, with Ahmedabad in the centre and Godhra as the pivot.

From Banaskantha in the north through Mehsana, Sabarkantha, Ahmedabad and Panchmahal and the tribal belt skirting the eastern border, the BJP has not even made a conscious effort to appeal to the minority voter. It has not put up even one candidate who is not Hindu.

The Congress has put up four Muslims. It is a contest for the Hindu vote. The Congress has pocketed the Muslim vote. The BJP under Modi does not even make a show of appealing to the minorities.

The Hindu vote is divided. The more it is divided, the slimmer the chances of the BJP. The Congress is dividing it on caste lines. The BJP is making sure it is getting the caste equation correct too, but at the same time is banking on Hindutva as the glue to make the castes stick.

(Here is how the caste-wise allotment of tickets pans out: Patels — Congress 41, BJP 45; Rajput/Kshatriya — Congress 18, BJP 16; OBC — Congress 57, BJP 55; Brahmins — Congress nine, BJP 13; Baniyas — Congress four, BJP six; ST — Congress 29, BJP 27; SC — Congress 12, BJP 14; minorities — Congress five, BJP 0; others — Congress five, BJP six.)

Hindutva was designed to drive Modi to the seat of power three months ago. The Election Commission thought otherwise and postponed the polls. The battle for Gujarat ranged the BJP against the rest.

In few state elections has the Congress had as many friends as it has in Gujarat. Political parties, individuals, volunteers from NGOs have effectively rallied to its support, just to drive out Modi.

The BJP is once again a political untouchable in Gujarat. Barring Mayavati, none of its NDA allies has campaigned for it.

Gujarat has been in election mode for the better part of the year, arguably since Modi was sent to replace Keshubhai Patel. Successive defeats in byelections since 2000, panchayat and civic polls in 2001, indicated a strong anti-incumbency wave.

Then came Godhra on February 27. In the violence that followed, Gujarat’s image outside the state plunged in proportion to the rise in Modi’s popularity in the Sangh parivar’s target audience. Modi effectively put the BJP back into the reckoning for the elections. He has not looked back since.

The only concession he has made in the campaigning is equating Hindutva with Gujarati pride. It is another matter that only yesterday, Laloo Prasad Yadav, campaigning against him, said Gujarat risked reducing itself to Bihar.

 

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