The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled Gujarat for 27 years, was undoubtedly shaken when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) launched an aggressive campaign in the State a few months ago. Traditionally a battleground for the Congress and the BJP, Gujarat will see a triangular contest this year for the first time in an Assembly election. Voting for the 182 seats are to be held on December 1 and December 5.
The BJP is sticking to its tried and tested strategy: bold optics combined with hype and rhetoric. But this time the party is battling heavy anti-incumbency. There is rising inflation and unemployment, besides the crisis in agriculture. The Morbi bridge collapse, in which 141 people died, and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis are also issues that are bound to have an impact on the vote.
Invoking Gujarati pride
Looking for a seventh consecutive win for the BJP in the State, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made major announcements just before the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) Model Code of Conduct took effect. He invoked Gujarati pride to launch the campaign with a slogan: “We made this Gujarat.” And the party is making the most of what it calls the “double engine” government (of the BJP at the Centre and in the State).
According to observers, the winning combination will be the “Modi factor” and the age-old caste equations. The Congress and the AAP are expected to put up a strong fight. “I think there is a surprise element that will play out. The climate is not completely in the BJP’s favour,” said Anand Yagnik, a rights lawyer and political observer in Ahmedabad.
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Modi is leaving nothing to chance. He arrived in Ahmedabad shortly after the election dates were announced and kicked off a high-decibel campaign. Addressing his first rally, Modi said: “Let us remember that the lotus [BJP’s election symbol] is our candidate… The lotus has helped Gujarat become prosperous. Every Gujarati, be it an Adivasi or a fisherman, be it a villager or an urban dweller, is full of confidence today…. That is why every Gujarati says, ‘I have made this Gujarat.’ People have built this State with their hard work.”
AAP candidate Sagar Rabari said it was a shrewd move by the BJP. “He tells people that if they vote lotus they will be voting for him,” said Rabari. When Frontline asked people in a few constituencies if they would vote for the BJP, they replied: “We vote Modi.” Party workers place their hopes on Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. “They will come a few weeks before the election, campaign hard and we will ride home victorious,” said a BJP functionary.
Sensing the anti-incumbency sentiment, the BJP dropped 38 sitting MLAs from the first list of candidates. State BJP chief C.R. Paatil called it a “generational shift”. It also gave the ticket to defectors from the Congress and to young Patidar (Patel) leaders like Hardik Patel. Hardik, who had emerged as the leader of the Patidar agitation demanding reservation in education and jobs, left the Congress to join the BJP in June this year.
In a first, the BJP planned to reach out to one crore people with a survey seeking suggestions for preparing its manifesto. This could be from a fear of the AAP, which has been working at the grassroots to understand people’s expectations.
However, the ticket distribution has led to protests among BJP workers. In Ahmedabad’s Naroda seat, the BJP has fielded Payal Kukrani, whose father Manoj was convicted in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riots case. He is currently out on bail.
In Godhra, the party gave the ticket to sitting legislator C.K. Raulji, who was a member of the district jail advisory committee that recommended the premature release of convicts serving life sentences in the Bilkis Bano rape case.
Modi’s detractors alleged that the ECI delayed announcing Gujarat’s election dates, which are usually announced along with those for Himachal Pradesh, because the Prime Minister wanted to make major announcements before the Model Code of Conduct came into force.
In late September, Modi inaugurated and laid foundation stones for projects worth Rs.29,000 crore in the State, including the world’s first CNG terminal in Bhavnagar, phase one of Ahmedabad’s Metro, and the first phase of Surat’s Diamond Research and Mercantile City. He also announced Rs.6,000 crore for projects in the Saurashtra belt and Rs.7,200 crore in Banaskantha district.
High on optics, he took the Metro from Kalupur to Thaltej in Ahmedabad and boarded a high-speed Vande Bharat train on its inaugural run to Mumbai.
At Banaskantha, he prayed at the well-known Ambaji temple, and at rallies in Bhavnagar he explained how the BJP had delivered on its 2017 promises to develop the Saurashtra coastal belt. But not all are convinced. “We are not fools to fall for it. You cannot show up a month before an election and think we will be convinced,” said Jagdish Vaghela, a bank manager in Ahmedabad.
This year Gujarat snagged two major corporate projects: the Vedanta joint venture with Foxconn of Taiwan to set up a Rs.1,54,000 crore semiconductor plant, and the Tata-Airbus Defence partnership to manufacture transport aircraft for the Indian Air Force. The BJP said the projects were part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) campaign, a pet project of Modi’s. The “Make in India” and “Vibrant Gujarat” slogans appear to have had an impact on middle-class and upper-class Indians, the BJP’s strongest supporters.
Indeed, Gujarat has benefited from having Modi as Prime Minister. Data from the Annual Survey of Industries 2021 show that Gujarat has surpassed Maharashtra in terms of the number of factories (28,479 as against 25,610). With 38,837, Tamil Nadu holds the first place. Between 2002–03 and 2019, Gujarat had the fastest growth in factory count (116 per cent). The State ranks second in the country after Tamil Nadu in terms of formal employment with nearly 20 lakh people.
According to Reserve Bank of India data, Gujarat has the lowest fiscal deficit in the country. In 2020-21, it was Rs.33,536 crore compared with Maharashtra’s Rs.54,618 crore. Gujarat’s gross State domestic product (GSDP)for 2021-22 (at current prices) is projected to be Rs.18,79,826crore. This is an annual increase of 13.3 per cent over the GSDP for 2020-21. Maharashtra has logged a higher GSDP, but growth estimates have fallen to 6 per cent. PRS Legislative Research, which tracks State economies, pointed out that in 2020-21, the agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors contributed 20, 43, and 37 per cent respectively to Gujarat’s economy.
Despite the growth rate, the State’s social indicators are poor. Gujarat ranks 21 among 36 States and Union Territories in the Human Development Index. At 0.672 per cent, it ranks below small States such as Manipur and Nagaland.
In every election since 2002, the BJP has used the “Gujarat Development Model” as a shining example of governance. Ahmedabad, in fact, serves as an illustration of the government’s efforts at creating smart cities, with better roads, civic amenities, and electricity supply. However, a few kilometres outside the city it is a different picture. While the highways are world-class, villages off the main road have mud roads, open sewers, and garbage dumps.
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On the Gujarat model, a paper published in 2016 by the well-known political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot states: “The beneficiaries of this ‘model’ were not only the middle class, but also a ‘neo-middle class’ made up of those who have begun to be part of the urban economy or who hope to benefit from it—the ‘neo-middle class’ is primarily aspirational. These groups were numerous enough to allow Modi’s BJP to win successive elections in Gujarat. The collaboration between the State and the corporate sector—an old tradition in Gujarat—gained momentum under Modi, businessmen benefiting from low wages, acquiring land more quickly and at a better price, and obtaining more tax breaks, etc.”
The AAP has rolled out promises that appear to resonate in pockets of the State: free electricity, better education, health facilities, and higher pay grades in government jobs.
After accusing political parties of promoting a revdi (freebie) culture, the BJP has done a U-turn and announced cycles and scooters for women, free LPG cylinders, and employment guarantees.
Meanwhile, the Congress is leading a “silent campaign”, said Rohan Gupta, its national spokesperson. He said the party had a strong presence and a clear vision on candidates.
- Gujarat will see a triangular contest this year for the first time in an Assembly election with the Aam Aadmi Party also in the fray.
- But this time the party is battling heavy anti-incumbency. There is rising inflation and unemployment, besides the crisis in agriculture. The Morbi bridge collapse and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis are also issues that are bound to have an impact on the vote.
- Sensing the anti-incumbency sentiment, the BJP dropped 38 sitting MLAs from the first list of candidates.It also gave the ticket to defectors from the Congress and to young Patidar (Patel) leaders like Hardik Patel.
- The ticket distribution has led to protests among BJP workers.
- Leaving nothing to chance, Modi announced major projects before the Model Code of Conduct became effective.