Modi's BJP in for challenge as voting gets underway in Gujarat assembly election

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at an election campaign rally in Sanand, India. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - At 24 years old, Hardik Patel, a fiery orator, is not old enough to contest assembly elections in the western state of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state.

Yet, as the second phase of voting gets under way in Gujarat on Thursday (Dec 14), Mr Patel, leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, has undoubtedly garnered the maximum amount of attention for the rival Congress alliance, somewhat to the chagrin of the Prime Minister's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Mr Patel has entered into an alliance with the Congress Party for these elections.

Gujarat assembly elections, for which the minimum age for contesting is 25, is being held in two phases, with voting in the first phase having ended on Dec 9.

The second phase, starting on Thursday, involves 93 seats.

Among the early birds this morning is Mr Modi's 97-year-old mother Hiraben.

At stake are 182 seats in the assembly. In the 2012 elections, the BJP won 115 seats and the Congress, 61.

The results, which will be out on Dec 18, will be closely monitored. As Gujarat is Mr Modi's home state, a dip in popularity in a BJP stronghold is expected to empower opposition parties.

Mr Patel, who is from the influential Patel or Patidaar caste, has gone all out, holding multiple rallies and meetings.

The commerce graduate, usually seen in a shirt and trousers as opposed to the usual political attire of kurta pyjama, has attracted large crowds at his rallies, with India's media noting the attendance has matched if not exceeded that at Mr Modi's rallies.

At a rally in Ahmedabad, Mr Patel garnered more than 50,000 Facebook live views.

"People flock in thousands to my rallies because I speak the bitter truth. They feel there is someone who calls a spade a spade. People feel I talk about their issues and that's why they come," he told India Today in an interview.

Mr Patel, who has been tapping into youth discontent over unemployment and the ruling Establishment, burst on to the political scene in 2015, following protests among Patels or Patidars, an influential upper caste community, over affirmative action.

Sections of the community, consisting of landowners, have been seeking affirmative action in the form of getting government jobs and into education institutes.

Mr Patel, whose fiery oration made him the face of the protests, with photographs of him carrying a rifle trending on social media, was charged with sedition and banned for six months from Gujarat by a court. This was part of bail conditions after the protests turned violent, leading to the death of a dozen protesters.

But he returned and has continued to nurture his image as the self-appointed leader of the Patels, a community that makes up 14 to 15 per cent of the population and which could help decide the results in at least 50 to 60 seats.

Gujarat is one of India's most advanced states, with Mr Modi, who was its chief minister for 13 years, credited with turning it into an economic powerhouse.

BJP has been in charge for nearly two decades but the juggernaut is showing signs of vulnerability. For one, it faces discontent over the nation-wide demonetisation of currency notes in November last year, a move intended to curb corruption but which ended up hurting businesses.

Poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax also impacted the trading community.

Some analysts believe the BJP is looking most shaky in these elections, even though the party has predicted it will win 150 seats.

"Hardik Patel has had very large roadshows... and that is making the BJP jittery because he is attracting crowds. He is a voice for young people," said Professor Ghanshyam Shah, a Gujarat-based political analyst.

However, it remains to be seen if the large crowds would translate into votes, he added.

Most opinion polls back a BJP win but by a smaller margin over its rivals, while one poll by news group ABP-CSDS has the BJP and Congress headed for a photo finish.

The Congress, hoping for a resurgence under its newly-anointed leader Rahul Gandhi, is also looking to take advantage of the discontent among other social groups like the Dalits, formerly known as "Untouchables".

The Dalits have been the target of Hindi nationalist cow vigilante groups, which have accused them of slaughtering and selling the animal, which is revered by Hindus.

Other than Mr Patel, Congress has also taken on board other young leaders: Mr Alpesh Thakor, leader of the Other Backward Classes or OBCs, consisting of middle-rung castes, and Mr Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit.

But some believe the BJP, which is banking on Mr Modi's popularity, has little to fear, at least for now, from these young leaders.

"BJP is quite stable in Gujarat. Gujarat is a prestige fight so the BJP wants to leave no stone unturned," said Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty, a political science professor at Delhi University. "Hardik Patel is just 24 years old. He is young, mercurial and has a long way to go."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.