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Gujarat’s unique urban voter muscle
City vs village test for Modi

(Top) BJP supporters root vociferously for Narendra Modi at a rally in Modasa near Ahmedabad on Saturday; Sonia Gandhi evokes a somewhat similar reaction from Congress supporters at Kalol near Ahmedabad. (AFP and PTI)

On the road in central Gujarat, Dec. 16: No one is quite sure whether the unprecedented voter turnout — 70.75 per cent — in the first phase of the Gujarat elections will help or mar Narendra Modi’s goal of winning at least 120 seats but it has had a singular effect in areas going to the polls in the second phase.

BJP leaders maintain that the high turnout reflects the pro-incumbency wave across the state, but their supporters — numerous and vociferous in the cities and small towns that dot central and north Gujarat — are a little worried that the Keshubhai factor may have played a big role too.

Akhil Desai (name changed), in Kheda town in the heart of central Gujarat, insists he is not a member of the BJP but also admits to being an ardent Modi supporter.

“The BJP may lose some seats in Saurashtra but it will make up those losses in the second phase. It will — it must — sweep central Gujarat.”

Chirag Dave, a district-level BJP leader in Anand, says much the same thing. “We have done very well already. But if the voting percentage goes over 70 in the second phase, we are certain to get 132 seats. You can take that down in writing.”

And in Baroda, Onkar Patel (name changed) admits that though the city is a BJP bastion, Gujaratis love to travel and many residents would have taken advantage of a long weekend (voting day is Monday) to go out of town.

“Since we are all sure that Modi is coming back to power, many of us may not have gone out to vote. But this time the word has got around that he must get 125 seats to become the next PM candidate. So we can’t afford to take it easy.”

As we travel through central Gujarat, traversing the districts of Kheda, Anand, Baroda, and on to the tribal-dominated Panchmahals and Dohad, the urban-rural divide is evident. It is not as though the BJP does not have support in the villages — it could not have been ruling Gujarat since 1995 without rural votes.

But it is the urban voter —in big cities, small towns and semi-urban marketplaces — who is Modi’s most vocal supporter. At every such halt, there are voices openly rooting for the BJP, singing the praises of the “vikas” (development) done by Modi. The rural areas, in contrast, are far more circumspect.

No one openly criticises the government or the chief minister (unlike in the first-phase constituencies where many did on the day before polling), but they prefer to keep their counsel for now.

Dono ka barabar takkar hain (the two sides are in a close contest)”; “Abhi tak kuchh clear nahin hain (nothing is clear yet)”; “Bees tarikh ko hi pata chalega (we shall know the result only on December 20)” are the canny and evasive replies to any question on which way the wind is blowing.

In the “backward” areas of central Gujarat, this evasiveness is often seen as tacit support for the Congress.

At Piplod, a marketplace that falls under the very rural Devgadh Baria seat, shopkeper Chandrakant Nathani admits that Piplod “town” has always been a BJP stronghold but the rest of Dahod district hasn’t.

“The entire Adivasi and OBC population goes out to the cities for construction work. If they return in time to vote, then the Congress could do well again. If not, the BJP will get quite a few.”

In Dahod town, where the BJP controls the nagar palika (municipal body), Bablu Khatri is hopeful that things might change this time. In 2002, in the aftermath of the riots, the BJP swept the tribal belt but the Congress made a comeback of sorts in 2007.

“Narendra Modi has made many visits to Dahod in the past couple of years and his popularity has grown. I think many Adivasis too realise how much he has done and won’t blindly vote for the Congress this time.”

The Congress’s “low-key campaign” does not seem to have made much dent in Modi’s solid urban fan base. Paranjay Singh, who won the Satrampur seat in Panchmahals in 2007 (and is not contesting this time because it has become a reserved Scheduled Tribe seat), is confident that a “silent undercurrent” is working in favour of the Congress, which the media is missing because of the pro-Modi urban cacophony.

Paranjay, who is All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijaya Singh’s son-in-law, is hopeful that Modi will meet the fate of Chandrababu Naidu, who too had been feted as the can-do CEO of Andhra Pradesh before being crushed in the 2004 polls.

But the one big difference between Gujarat and most any other state in India is the much greater clout of the urban voter. And that clout, thanks to delimitation, has only become stronger in this election.

Gujarat has 67 urban seats, which is more than one-third of the total, and another 20-odd semi-urban seats. Modi’s big advantage is that he starts out with a kitty of at least 50 “sure” seats, Congress leaders privately concede.

With that kind of a cushion, an “undercurrent” is not enough; only an anti-incumbency wave that breaches the rural-urban divide can do a Naidu to Modi. There is no overt sign of that so far as his supporters go all out to make him, instead, do a Sheila Dikshit.