The first phase of elections to the Gujarat assembly is scheduled for Saturday, as 89 of 182 seats go to the polls, in what is perhaps the most watched and closely contested election in the state in two decades.
The BJP has ruled the state for 22 years, but the Congress has always had a significant presence in the state, with its vote share never going below a third, and it is expected to do better this time. In the 2012 assembly elections, the BJP won 119 seats and the Congress 57. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
This time, opinion polls give the Congress anything between 37 and 85 seats, and the BJP 92-141. Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat, has been leading the campaign from the front. He has spent much of the past week in the state, and is expected to spend the first part of the coming week (campaigning for the second phase, scheduled for December 14, ends on December 12) here too. BJP president Amit Shah has also camped in the state
The Congress campaign, overseen by veteran Ashok Gehlot, has had Rahul Gandhi, who will be announced as the party’s next president on December 11, as its face. The Congress has been supported by the Patidars, led by Hardik Patel, some backward classes, led by Alpesh Thakor, and the Dalits, led by Jignesh Mewani.
All three are young and charismatic leaders, and strong orators, with a significant following among the young people of their respective communities. These young people want jobs, and better education that leads to such jobs.
The Congress is hoping that its partnership with the three – Patel is supporting it but not contesting the election himself; Thakor has joined the Congress and is a candidate; and Mewani’s candidature is supported by the Congress – will help.
As will angst over the fallout of last year’s demonetisation and this year’s Goods and Services Tax on small traders in the state who have traditionally voted for the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday again raised suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remark terming him a ‘neech aadmi’ (lowly person), and labelled the Congress a casteist party.
Speaking at a public meeting in the small town of Bhabhar in Banaskantha district in north Gujarat, Mr Modi also accused Mr. Aiyar of visiting Pakistan to arrange his [Modi’s] supari (contract killing).
“After I became Prime Minister, this man (Aiyar) went to Pakistan and met some Pakistanis. All this thing is available on the social media. In that meeting, he is seen discussing with Pakistanis that ‘Jab tak Modi ko raste se hataya nahi jata’ (until Modi is not removed from the way), relations between India and Pakistan cannot improve,” Mr. Modi said.
“Someone tell me what is the meeting of raste se hatana? You had gone to Pakistan to give my supari; you wanted to give Modi’s supari,” the Prime Minister said.
“This conversation took place three years back. The Congress party had tried to suppress this episode…They did not take any action against him for last three years,” Mr. Modi alleged. “What is my crime? This country’s people have elected me in a democratic way, and you go to Pakistan and say that this man is coming in the way and remove him!”
Mr Aiyar meanwhile, said he was ready to accept any punishment if the party suffers damage in the Gujarat polls due to his “neech aadmi” comment.The veteran party leader, who was suspended on Thursday for his remarks, said the Congress party had given him a lot and there was no future for India without the party.
“If the Congress has suffered any damage because of what I have said, then I deeply regret it,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an India-Pakistan seminar.
“Aur agar party ko election mein kuchh bhi nuksan hota hai, to jo bhi uchit dand Congress party dena chahe wo de sakte hain (And if the Congress suffers any damage in the polls due to my comments, then I will accept whatever punishment the party deems fit),” he said.
This is not the first time Mr. Aiyar’s comments have left the Congress red-faced. In November 1998, Mr. Aiyar, who was then Congress spokesperson, called BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee a “layak vyakti, nalayak neta” (competent person, useless leader). Then too, according to old-timers, Mr. Aiyar had blamed lack of Hindi proficiency for the comment.
His “chaiwallah” label for Mr. Modi in the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha election became a rallying point for BJP campaign.