NARENDRA MODI'S victory in the byelection for the Rajkot-II Assembly seat in Gujarat gave legitimacy to his chief ministership but it simultaneously sent a clear signal to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party: that it could not take for granted the only State that gave it an absolute majority in the last elections.
Modi's victory margin of 14,728 votes over his Congress(I) rival Ashwin Mehta was half of what Vajubhai Vala, Finance Minister in the Keshubhai Patel Ministry, secured in 1998. It raised the question whether the BJP's decision to replace Patel with Modi was politically expedient. Modi's skills in political management and mobilisation of the party cadre during the elections, at a time when the BJP's fortunes were at their lowest ebb during the Keshubhai Patel reign, were key considerations behind the party high command's decision to reward him with the top post.
However, Modi was unable to ensure the BJP's victory in the byelections held at Sayajiganj and Mahuva (ST). The Congress (I)'s Dalsukh Prajapati wrested the Sayajiganj seat in Vadodara from the BJP by defeating Jitendra Sukhadia, a former Minister in the Keshubhai Patel Ministry. Another former Minister in the Patel Ministry, Jaspal Singh, was the Samajwadi Party candidate from the seat. Prajapati won by a margin of 22,544 votes. At Mahuva, in Surat district, Ishvarbhai Vahia of the Congress(I) defeated the BJP's Amitbhai Patel by 12,695 votes. In Rajkot-II successive years of water scarcity, the people's dislike of Vajubhai Vala for his alleged corruption and disunity among the party's senior leaders were factors that weighed against Modi. The BJP's critics attribute Modi's victory primarily to his incumbency advantage as Chief Minister.
Rajkot, the hub of the Saurashtra region, had been a BJP citadel for years. Last year it lost control of the Municipal Corporation to the Congress(I) after almost a quarter century. Vajubhai Vala's diminishing popularity with the voters was blamed for this setback. He had won the seat four times in a row, but came under a cloud after his close identification with the builders' lobby and Keshubhai Patel, both of whom were considered liabilities after the January 26, 2001, earthquake in the State.
The Congress(I) emerged as a united force. Its candidate Ashwin Mehta is an educationist involved with almost a dozen schools and colleges, most of them located in Rajkot-II. He also heads a local bank and enjoys a good rapport with all the faction leaders. Modi's erstwhile adversary in the BJP, Shankarsinh Vaghela, now a Congress(I) MP from Gujarat, campaigned against him, and this public display of unity within the Congress(I) probably helped bring down Modi's victory margin.
On the other hand, the disunity among the BJP's senior leaders was apparent, with Keshubhai Patel, who hails from Rajkot, excusing himself from campaigning for Modi on the grounds of ill-health. Patel, however campaigned in Sayajiganj and Mahuva. Among the other reasons for Modi's reduced margin are the alienation of the Patel community owing to Keshubhai Patel's isolation in the party, and the reluctance of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal to campaign for Modi. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal were apparently displeased with the BJP's not-so-definite stand on building a Ram temple at Ayodhya. The RSS, however, came out in full strength to support its former "pracharak", but it barely managed to reverse the slide in Modi's fortunes. A none too happy state of affairs for the BJP as it prepares for the Assembly elections due in the State in March next year.