BJP banks on Modi's clout to retain power in Gujarat

India's ruling party launches campaign ahead of state polls likely in December

A supporter in a mask bearing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's likeness attending a BJP rally in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, on Tuesday, ahead of state assembly elections. Mr Modi was also in the state to lay the foundation stone for All India Institute of Medical Sciences. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Campaigning has taken off in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, with his party looking for a fourth consecutive win despite discontent with a slowing economy and the incumbent chief minister.

The rival Congress Party is building a campaign around those issues. Its president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, has unveiled the tagline for his party's campaign for local elections: "Growth gone crazy."

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is banking on Mr Modi's popularity as a leader to win state elections.

India's gross domestic product growth has slid for the sixth quarter in a row to a three-year low of 5.7 per cent. Mr Modi's decision to demonetise high-value rupee notes, which accounted for 86 per cent of the currency in circulation, has hurt consumer spending in a cash economy. This was followed by the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), which caught businesses unprepared.

Analysts said while BJP had the edge, the margin of victory could be a gauge of the BJP government's policies and the level of anti-incumbent feelings.

"At present, it looks like there is dissatisfaction with the (Gujarat) government across the classes which has already manifested itself in several grassroots protests," said Gujarat-based politician analyst Ghyanshyam Shah. "Demonetisation, slow job growth are all Indian phenomena. But petty shopkeepers and small and medium industries in Gujarat were affected by demonetisation and then by GST."

Different caste groups have started showing discontentment at the ruling party. Dalits, formerly known as the Untouchables, have been the target of Hindi nationalist cow vigilante groups as the BJP attempts to woo the community. Patidars or Patels, an influential community, have been agitating for affirmative action and reservation of government jobs and seats in education institutes.

"The majority of those impacted are traditional BJP voters," said Mr Gyhanshyam. "But it is difficult to say whether they would support Congress because there are a number of players in the opposition."

BJP has run Gujarat for nearly two decades, including 13 years under Mr Modi until he became Prime Minister in 2014. He is credited with turning the state, which has an enterprising business community, into an economic powerhouse. His popularity remains high in a state where there is pride that a Gujarati is the country's premier.

An early opinion poll conducted by Lokniti-CSDS for local TV channel ABP News found that BJP leads Congress by more than 30 percentage points in Gujarat. The poll predicted that BJP would win 150 seats in the 182-member state assembly. In the 2012 elections, the BJP won 116 seats, while Congress won 60.

Analysts said if the anti-BJP votes were split among Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and other smaller groups, BJP would have an edge.

  • Temple run v pride procession

  • Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been on a temple tour in Gujarat as India's main opposition party seeks to reach out beyond its traditional voter base of religious minorities to a wider section of Hindus.

    Mr Gandhi last month toured Gujarat's Saurashtra region, which has 52 seats in the assembly, visiting temples while criticising the ruling party's development record in the state.

    Dubbed the "temple run" by sections of the Indian media, he is following that up with another tour of temples in central Gujarat. According to Congress, he is expected to meet a cross section of people, including farmers and traders. The party has also centred its campaign on criticising the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its claims of economic development in the state and the country with a tagline of "Growth gone crazy" against the "I am development" slogan of the BJP.

    At an election meeting last week, Mr Gandhi remarked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetisation policy, which was aimed at taking out black or illicit money from the Indian economy. "Modi-ji said that black money will no more be part of the economy after demonetisation and the poor will get that money. Did you get a single penny?" he asked.

    The BJP, meanwhile, has kick-started its campaign. Party president Amit Shah flagged off a Gujarat "gaurav yatra" or pride procession from Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace Porbandar on Monday, the independence activist's birthday.

    A convoy consisting of hundreds of cars and motorcycles is travelling through different constituencies in the state, highlighting the achievements of the Modi government, according to the BJP. The party has released videos highlighting development in the state under Mr Modi, with Mr Shah criticising the opposition campaign.

    Mr Shah hit out at Mr Gandhi's heritage - his mother Sonia is Italian - saying: "Rahul Gandhi will need to remove his Italian glasses and wear Gujarati glasses to be able to see the kind of development the BJP has ensured in the state."

    Nirmala Ganapathy

Congress, by contrast, does not have a chief ministerial face and has also seen desertions. Meanwhile, former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela has announced that he is forming a third alternative front for the elections.

The polls, according to BJP president Amit Shah, will be held in December. The election commission has yet to announce dates.

"Gujarat has been a BJP stronghold. But the Congress has had a substantial presence. It has just not been able to translate it into votes," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of the Jain University.

"This time round, the challenge in Gujarat is different for the ruling party. It has a strong stake in ensuring that the party wins, and credibly. It is a prestige battle.''

Congress has an advantage in another state, Madhya Pradesh, where elections are likely to be held next year, along with Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. All three are ruled by BJP, which is hoping to retain power.

In Madhya Pradesh, Congress has already named Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia, who comes from royalty and whose late father was a Congress leader, as its chief minister candidate. BJP is seen facing anti-incumbency with current Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan fighting for a fourth term in power.

"Congress will definitely do better in Madhya Pradesh," said political analyst Sudhir Panwar. "It has a strong candidate in Scindia."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline BJP banks on Modi's clout to retain power in Gujarat. Subscribe