Gujarat polls: Struggling with narrative, BJP pins hopes on PM Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre), Home Minister Rajnath Singh (left) and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi at the Parliament House in New Delhi. (File photo)
With his international travel commitments taken care of and his government ensuring there would be no winter session of the Parliament for another three weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unencumbered enough to launch a blitzkrieg of a campaign in Gujarat. The PM is expected to address a rally in each of the 33 districts of Gujarat from now to December 12, the last day of campaigning for the second phase of polling.

Gujarat votes on December 9 and 14. Both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are busy finalizing their list of candidates for the 89 of the 182-seats that poll in the first phase. These seats are in the Saurashtra-Kutch and South Gujarat regions. The lists are likely to be announced by Thursday evening.

However, the BJP is on a sticky wicket in terms of the political narrative in the state. For once, the BJP election strategy in Gujarat had become defensive. Until now, it has relied on the Congress to make a mistake. Unfortunately for the BJP, that hasn’t happened. Whatever the eventual results, political observers in the state say the Congress campaign has seldom been run as efficiently since 2002.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has shown consistency in attacking the BJP and the Modi government on economic issues, and how the Gujarat model of development is a “hoax”. He has studiously avoided engaging the BJP on emotive issues of nationalism and religion. He has resisted from indulging in calling the PM names. The Congress leader has also respected the religious sentiments of the Hindus in Gujarat by visiting temples often.

If the BJP top leadership believed the common Gujarati would get upset by the Congress playing “caste politics” by aligning with Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and inducting OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, that is yet to come about. The support to the Congress is being driven by anger towards the BJP. The Vijay Rupani government has announced sundry sops before the Election Commission announced poll dates. The Modi government has tried to reach out to the business community by lowering GST rates on key items, but has finally reached the conclusion only Modi himself could save the party from an embarrassing result.

Of the five standalone campaign videos posted on the BJP's accounts, four talk about Modi. The party has attached the #ModiCheNe hashtag to the videos which say 'Modi che ne, Gujarat safe che' (Modi is there, Gujarat is safe). The PM may or may not be able to lead the party to victory, but the state of affairs has already put a question mark on party chief Amit Shah’s ability to lead Gujarat.

Until August, Gujarat elections were supposed to be a walk in the park for the BJP, which Shah was expected to single-handedly deliver to the PM. It would have vindicated Shah after Anandiben Patel was unceremoniously forced out of the chief ministerial chair, and Vijay Rupani, considered close to Shah, installed.

In August, after his win in the Rajya Sabha polls and quitting his Gujarat assembly seat, the BJP chief had announced that the party’s campaign would rest on three planks – BJP government’s ‘garib kalyan, or the welfare of the poor, its outreach to OBC (Other Backward Classes) and delivering the Narmada waters to water-scarce areas. The BJP started with organizing district level meetings on these three issues but soon discovered poor resonance for any of the three among the people. The attendance at these meeting was bad. The party also had to face the wrath of Dalit, Patidar and Thakor youths.

The BJP then switched to it’s tried and tested ‘vikas’, or development plank. Here again, it failed to strike a chord. The business community had been reeling because of the twin blows of demonetisation and GST, and conveyed its anger. Apart from the Congress, activist groups and former Gujarat chief minister Suresh Mehta-led Lokshahi Bachao Andolan, save democracy movement, have also reached out to the people to “sensitise” them how most of the claims on ‘development’ were ‘false’, how the Narmada waters were yet to reach farmers and there were increasing number of farmer suicides, while the successive BJP governments have failed to deliver on ‘garib kalyan. Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha has also contributed his bit by speaking against Modi government’s economic policies in Gujarat.

The BJP now needs to heavily rely on the PM. Its social media campaign betrays that. It is a crucial battle for Modi and Shah to win. If they lose Gujarat, considered to be their citadel, it would be a huge blow to their ambition to lead BJP to an encore in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.