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AHMEDABAD: The burst of firecrackers across Gujarat on Wednesday had nothing to do with the announcement of assembly election dates. This was ‘Labh Pacham’ -the fifth day of the Hindu new year. Most Gujarati establishments remain closed after Diwali and reopen on this most auspicious day with special puja and great hopes that the next one year will yield rich dividends, or ‘labh’.
The EC has cited floods as the reason for delayed announcement of poll dates- — an explanation that has not washed with everyone — but by making the announcement on Labh Pancham, CEC A K Joti has honoured an age-old Gujarati tradition, which many believe is the secret behind the powerful trading community’s profit-making prowess. The winners of the jackpot at the end of a campaign involving 4.33 crore voters on December 18 will either be BJP, which has been on the winning side since the 1990 polls, or Congress which is sniffing an outside chance of getting a majority in the 182-member Gujarat assembly for the first time since 1985.
It’s the first time since the 2014 general elections, which BJP swept, that the saffron party is seeking re-election in a major state. That means it will battle the incumbency factor and can’t play the challenger card.
It has been 27 years since the Congress decline began in Gujarat. If the party loses yet again, this will be the seventh time it will be ceding ground to the BJP since 1990, although there were brief periods in the 1990s when the party propped up governments led by late Chimanbhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela who jilted the BJP. Gujarat 2017 will almost certainly be a two-horse race with a few also-rans thrown in, including Vaghela’s fledgling All India Hindustan Congress Party, NCP and AAP.
The main problem for the Congress is the consistent average 10% gap in vote share between the Congress and BJP. The difference was 9.7% in 1995, 10% in 1998, 10.6% in 2002, 11.1% in 2007 and 8.9% in 2012. The gap in vote share rose to a staggering 26.7% in the last Lok Sabha election when BJP won all 26 seats. The decline in the party’s fortunes are largely attributed to the rise of Hindutva which unbundled the Congress’s old winning caste formula of KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim). It could never recover after the advent of Narendra Modi in late 2001 and the boost to Hindutva due to Godhra in early 2002. Congress is seeing a possible revival coming not out of its own strength but from the help being extended by young community leaders Alpesh Thakor (OBC), Jignesh Mewani (Dalit) and Hardik Patel (Patidar).
For BJP, victory may come more on points than an outright knockout, to use a boxing analogy. Despite having moved out of the state,
Modi remains BJP’s best bet+
. Even in the face of possible voter fatigue after 22 years of BJP rule, he has the ability to change voters’ mood with a whirlwind tour of the state, which he’ll surely undertake.
There is, however, one difference this time. Modi’s appeal always lay in his speeches; he could sway the masses by being on the offensive – against the Godhra mob in 2002, against Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ke saudagar’ remark in 2007, and against corruption in UPA-2 in 2012. But with him firmly in power in the national capital, there is no hostile Delhi sultanate for him to rail against in 2017. While he continues to harp on development, ‘vikas’ has been the target of jokes on social media in Gujarat, and GST and demonetisation have upset many in this entrepreneurial state. But the astute politician that he is, he can be trusted to invoke the Gujarati asmita card, emphasise the cruciality of polls for a Gujarati PM, and rely upon the BJP’s strong organisational apparatus — a huge plus over Congress — to try and beat back Rahul Gandhi’s challenge. If there is one state Modi and BJP president Amit Shah would not like to lose at any cost, it has to be Gujarat.