Aided by Rahul Gandhi, India’s Congress leading BJP a merry dance in crucial elections
The die has been cast with curtains being drawn over the cacophonic campaigning on December 12 for the crucial two-phase elections to the 182-member legislative assembly of the western Indian state of Gujarat, homeland of Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid fears of vote rigging.
After massive complaints of faulty electronic voting machines (EVMs) marked the December 9 first phase of polling for 89 seats up for grabs in 19 districts of Saurashtra-Kutch and South Gujarat, the second and final phase of voting to capture 93 constituencies in 14 districts in central and northern Gujarat will be held on December 14 in the presence of some 150,000 gun-toting policemen.
The bipolar ballot box battle, which was a walk in the park for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) till last month, has already turned into a neck-and-neck race with the state's only other major party, the Congress, thanks mainly to the whirlwind campaigning by the Grand Old Party’s president-elect Rahul Gandhi.
While Modi, who has ruled Gujarat for 13 years, has addressed as many as 35 public rallies in a desperate bid to retain the traditional bastion of his saffron party and thus ensure his own re-election in 2019, the Congress, which has been out of power for the past 22 years, is also firing on all cylinders as the electoral contest could be its last hurrah to revive its dwindling fortunes.
The high-decibel barnstorming has snowballed into a no-holds-barred slanging match between Modi and Gandhi to woo the 47 million voters most of whom have been seething with anger over the federal government’s twin blows of the demonic demonetization and the back-breaking goods and services tax.
Now giving the Congress leader a mouthful, now bad-mouthing his mother Sonia, the 67-year-old kept spitting venom on the Gandhi family and times out of number harped on his favorite, surefire, poll-eve anti-Muslim hate rhetoric instead of expounding on the so-called “Gujarat model” or at least the BJP’s schemes for the man on the street.
“In sharp contrast, soft-spoken Gandhi in his speeches struck a chord with diverse audiences—youth, women, tribals, Dalits, students, parents, professionals, traders, merchants and even backward castes,” says senior Gujarat Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia, adding that his party has been leading the BJP a merry dance.
Indeed, Modi, who is the star campaigner of his party, also made a vain attempt to impress the electors by holding forth on the gigantic Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue and the high-tech Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, both of which hardly matter to the hoi polloi.
Many BJP supporters told this correspondent that the Modi magic was on the wane as, unlike in the past, his rallies did not draw huge crowds, and this despite the fact that the local BJP units had ordered factory owners near the venues to send at least a dozen workers to the Prime Minister’s public meetings.
In many villages, saffronite foot soldiers were barred entry and even beaten up by angry residents. Ministers of the entire Modi cabinet have been camping in various assembly constituencies only to find that the anti-incumbency wave has come on like gangbusters.
The very fact that the BJP had failed even to present its poll manifesto even by December 8 proves that the party which has not kept its promises made to the electorate in the last 2012 assembly polls has nothing new to write home about.
The ambitious plans of Modi’s alter ego, BJP chief Amit Shah, to capture 150 of the 182 seats and thus break the 1985 Congress record of winning 149 seats seems to have gone haywire what with even the state government’s intelligence bureau report giving the ruling party a maximum of 80 seats and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) not long ago seeing the BJP fighting a losing battle.
Yet, Jitendra Prajapati, a dyed-in-the-wool BJP supporter, told Al Arabiya English that Shah was an unbeatable shrewd strategist and his micromanagement of each of Gujarat’s 50,128 polling booths would lead the party to a spectacular victory.
But the BJP administration has antagonized its traditional vote bank, the Patels — who form 14 percent of the state’s 62 million population — by arresting and harassing young Patidar leader Hardik Patel who has now been beating the drum for the Congress. Yet, in order to keep Patels in good humour, the BJP has given the election ticket to as many as 49 members of the influential community agitating for reservation in higher education and government jobs.
The hitherto weak Congress, too, has 45 Patel candidates and was administered a shot in the arm by support from Dalit activist Jignesh Mewani and leader of the other backward classes Alpesh Thakore.
The BJP has not fielded a single Muslim but the Congress, aware about the deep polarisation in Gujarat since the bloody communal riots in 2002, has, though hesitantly, put up six members of the community which constitutes 10 per cent of the state’s population.
With strange bedfellows from insignificant parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and former Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela’s Jan Vikalp Party as well as independent candidates throwing their hats into the ring and some community leaders raising a banner of revolt against Hardik Patel, the Congress may lose a good number of votes but its 64-page comprehensive manifesto containing 51 promises for all sections of society may help it win the day.
Finally, following widespread fears among various parties that the controversial EVMs can be hacked, the Election Commission of India kept clarifying before and after the first round of polling on December 9 that the EVMs could not be tampered with, but gave no satisfactory explanation for its confidence.
Says RTI activist and info-tech expert Roshan Shah: “If objects in space can be controlled and manoeuvred from earth, EVMs can easily be controlled from a remote command center. EVMs will ensure a BJP victory but if ballot papers are used, the saffron party cannot win even 50 seats. Shah opined that even if BJP won by fudging EVMs, people would be out on streets sooner or later.
All said and done, the Congress, aided by Patels, can certainly influence voters in 98 rural constituencies and could win some of the 45 semi-urban seats but there is not the ghost of chance of a victory in the 39 all-urban BJP bastions.
No wonder, while the Congress in Gujarat is confident of a tectonic shift in its favour after Rahul Gandhi’s whistle-stop tours, most BJP leaders have seen the writing on the wall and are ready for a winter of discontent with the party just managing to scrape through when the results of the nail-biting elections are declared on December 18.