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An affliction called Mission

- If Modi is obsessed with 272, Vadodara has its own goal
Modi and his rival Congress candidate Mistry

The BJP is in the grip of a “mission” mania and the Vadodara unit is afflicted by a particularly virulent variant of it.

If Narendra Modi is obsessed with his Mission 272 — a clear majority in the Lok Sabha for the NDA, if not the BJP on its own — the Gujarat leadership cannot stop talking of “Mission 26” — a clean sweep for the BJP in all 26 parliamentary seats in the state. Gujarat’s neighbours to the north and east have followed suit — Shivraj Singh Chouhan has his own Mission 29 and Vasundhara Raje her Mission 25.

And now BJP leaders in Vadodara, displaying a sibling rivalry of sorts vis--vis the city’s newfound twin in Varanasi, have their own mission to fulfil. Young Bharat Dangar, who is the BJP chief in Vadodara, affects the macho swagger of a mini-Modi and talks only in superlatives. His mission is to ensure that the city has the “highest turnout” on April 30 and that Modi wins by the “biggest” margin in the entire country.

But what if Modi gives up Vadodara for Varanasi? “That is not an issue for us. That Narendrabhai Modi has chosen Vadodara is itself the greatest honour for us,” he insists.

What he does not mention is that Narendrabhai chose Vadodara, and not a seat in north Gujarat where he hails from, because this is the safest seat for the BJP. In 2009, the BJP won Vadodara by 1.36 lakh votes, the highest margin in Gujarat. That’s small beer by national standards and hence the frenzied preparations to ensure a historic win this time.

“We want to make history,” says Dangar more than once, as an army of volunteers teems around the party office under the overall supervision of the Gujarat petrochemicals minister and key Modi man, the portly Saurabh Patel.

The BJP is getting a lot of help in its mission from “civil society” groups and corporate houses who have taken it upon themselves to increase the voter turnout this time.

On Sunday evening, a 15km-long human chain of volunteers ringed the city with the message that everyone should vote on Wednesday. Several schools in the city were roped into this exercise, with teachers and students — even though not of voting age — lining the streets.

Dangar points out that voter turnouts in Lok Sabha elections, compared to municipal or Assembly polls, are usually much lower. In 2009, Vadodara recorded just 49.02 per cent. “We have to increase voting by 20-25 per cent this time in order to achieve that record margin,” Dangar says, almost like a mantra.

He also dismisses the Congress’s Madhusudan Mistry as a man of no consequence. “If anything, his last-minute entry into the fray is actually helping us increase the margin. Mistry’s antics (climbing a lamp post to bring down Modi’s posters and place his own) and the resentment of local Congress workers against his imposition from above have made the Congress even weaker.”

Given the frenzied support for Modi among Gujarat’s urban middle class, Dangar may well achieve his target, but the BJP’s larger “Mission 26” isn’t quite that easy. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, the Congress managed to surprise pollsters by doing much better after being trounced in the Assembly elections.

Modi swept Gujarat in the post-Godhra riots Assembly polls in December 2002, but in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 12 of the 26 seats. The same thing happened five years later. In the 2007 Assembly polls, the Congress fared badly but managed to win 11 seats in the 2009 general election.

Congress leaders in the state are convinced that the same pattern will repeat itself this time too. The mood in the Congress headquarters, the grandiose Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan in the Paldi area of Ahmedabad, is surprisingly upbeat. There is a constant stream of party workers filtering through the rooms, and groups of men and women pore over campaign schedules and talk excitedly about the reports they are getting from the ground.

One reason for that buoyancy, party insiders reveal, is that for the first time in many years there is no “infighting” in the state unit. Local party leader Manish Doshi says: “Ticket distribution has been very good this time. Rahulji cleared the candidates list early — we had enough time to campaign, and we even had time to change our candidates in one or two places.”

Congressmen are also dismissive of the “Modi hawa” that appears to be raging through the state and the country. Lakshmikant Suthar, a veteran party worker, says: “Hawa feel hoti hain, dikhti nahin hain. BJP to sirf hawa ka dikhawa kar rahi hain (a wave is felt, not seen; the BJP is only making a show of a wave).”

As we travel beyond the cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara into the drier hinterland of north Gujarat and parts of Saurashtra, a much more complex scenario unfolds.

There is huge support for Modi even in areas where the Congress did relatively well in the 2012 Assembly elections, but the social groups that were opposed to him over the last decade — Muslims, Dalits, sections of Kshatriyas, the rural poor — remain as implacably opposed to him even now, even though a Gujarati is in the race to be Prime Minister.

In Dhinoj village which falls under Patan constituency in north Gujarat, almost everyone we meet at the main market is rooting for Modi. They are all Patels, and confess they have been BJP supporters all their lives. But at Lunva, some 20km away, a bunch of auto drivers openly state that this time “panja” (the Congress symbol, hand) will win. They are all Muslims.

But since the Muslim vote in Gujarat, unlike in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, is not a decisive factor, the Congress has to garner the support of a much wider combination of the disaffected and the underprivileged to make any impact. And much of its hopes centre on individual candidates who are regarded as “formidable” — Shankersinh Vaghela in Sabarkantha, Bharatsinh Solanki in Anand, and Tushar Chaudhury in Bardoli are the trio most frequently mentioned.

The BJP seems to be aware that the full-throttle “Modi for PM” blitzkrieg has not been able to bridge the social and political divisions that exist on the ground and so its strategy is to target the first-time voter and also maximise the turnout of its own huge support base.

A senior BJP strategist who did not wish to be named confessed that in the past, Modi had not really been interested in the Lok Sabha elections. But this time they mean everything to him. Admitting to gaps in the campaign, he said: “We had become a little complacent and with Modi busy campaigning in the rest of the country, his iron-like grip on the party organisation had slackened. We are now putting things in order,” he said.

Modi, who was initially slated to campaign only for a day in his home state, has been on a rally spree in Gujarat over the last few days. On Saturday, April 26, he addressed five rallies and another five on Monday — carefully targeting seats where the Congress is perceived to have an edge.

Voter turnout, BJP leaders point out, will be the key to ensuring a clean or a near clean sweep in Gujarat. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the turnout in Gujarat was a mere 45.16 per cent. It went up marginally to 47.81 per cent in 2009. But it jumped in the Assembly elections of 2012 to 71.34 per cent.

“You don’t have to wait for May 16. If on April 30 the turnout crosses 70 per cent, you will know that we have achieved our Mission 26,” the BJP strategist prophesied, with the typical bombast that comes naturally to a party that has become an extension of Narendra Modi.