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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

India's BJP party wheels out big guns in Gujurat for elections in its stronghold

Prime minister and Gujurati Modi has addressed no fewer than eight election rallies in two days and will do 27 more before election day 

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally at Bhaat village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state on October 16, 2017. Amit Dave / Reuters
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally at Bhaat village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state on October 16, 2017. Amit Dave / Reuters

Seeking a fifth straight state election win in its stronghold of Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party is pitching its biggest star into the final phase of its campaign: Narendra Modi, who happens to be both prime minister and a son of the Gujarati soil.

Mr Modi, who was the state’s chief minister until becoming prime minister in 2014, addressed no fewer than eight rallies this week — four on Monday and four on Wednesday. He and his party consider the election so important that they have postponed the start of parliament’s winter session by nearly a month so they can devote their energies to the campaign.

The election for the 182-seat assembly is scheduled to be held in two phases, on December 9 and 14. Mr Modi plans to star in at least 27 more rallies across the state before then. The results will be announced on December 18.

A win for the BJP means they will have been in power, uninterrupted, in Gujurat since March 1995 — not a record by any means, but nonetheless a period of rule that has spanned a generation. A loss, or even a poor performance, will damage the BJP and Mr Modi’s personal standing significantly, given the importance the party places on Gujarat and its track record in state elections since 2014.

Over the last three years, the BJP and its allies have won power in 18 out of 29 Indian states, and by large margins — a sign, in part, of the internal disarray of the opposition, notably the Congress party. “It is not only winning but also winning very well,” said Sanjay Kumar, the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based research institute. Referring particularly to the Congress party, he added: “It is very difficult for another party which is not even in good shape to muster so much.”

An opinion poll conducted by Mr Kumar’s institute in October showed the BJP would win between 113 and 121 seats and roughly 46 per cent of the vote share. The survey estimated the vote share for the Congress would be around 41 per cent — an increase from the 38.9 per cent the party won in the last election in 2012 — and predicted it would win between 58 and 64 seats.

“The ground reports that we’re hearing have had murmurs of dissatisfaction,” Mr Kumar said, “but not enough for the BJP to be defeated.

In campaigning, Congress has attacked the BJP over rising unemployment, the chaos of Mr Modi’s demonetisation exercise, and the difficulties of negotiating his new sales tax regime.

“Modi forced Gabbar Singh Tax on people,” quipped Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party’s vice-president, said at a rally on Wednesday, working the name of a bandit from the famous film “Sholay” into the acronym of the Goods and Services Tax. “He destroyed the small and medium-sized business houses with that one step.”

India's main opposition Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi waves as he receives a garland during an election campaign rally at Dahegam in Gujarat. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo
India's main opposition Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi waves as he receives a garland during an election campaign rally at Dahegam in Gujarat. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo

In response, Mr Kumar said, the federal government has been granting concessions, via reductions in sales tax rates, to the state’s thriving business community over the last month.

Congress has tried to put up a fight, stitching together an alliance of caste leaders, hoping to use their popularity to tap the votes of their communities. Most prominent among them is Hardik Patel, a 24-year-old firebrand from the Patidar caste, traditionally an agricultural community but which has suffered dwindling income from land losses.

The Patidars constitute roughly 15 to 16 per cent of the population of Gujurat. Mr Patel has been agitating since 2015 for reserved quotas for Patidar youth in educational institutions and government jobs.

Last week, the party offered Mr Patel a deal: quotas in exchange for electoral support. He accepted. “Congress has agreed to what the BJP has denied us for years,” he said.

The BJP lambasted the deal calling it “the height of political opportunism.” India's law minister and senior BJP figure, Ravi Shankar Prasad, pointed out that 49 per cent of Gujarat’s government jobs and places in educational institutions were already reserved for various castes that were considered oppressed.By order of India's Supreme court, that ratio must not exceed 50 per cent. “I want Congress to reveal their road map, as to how they will breach the 50 per cent cap,” Mr Prasad said.

The alliance with Mr Patel will favour the Congress party, Mr Kumar said. The younger and poorer sections of the Patidar community are inclined to vote however Mr Patel tells them. But the numbers are still not strong enough, he added, — "not to the extent of winning."

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