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AHMEDABAD: The Election Commission on Wednesday lifted the suspense over Gujarat poll dates, announcing voting on December 9 and 14 and setting the stage for a pivotal contest seen as a mood setter for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Gujarat results will be declared along with that for Himachal Pradesh on December 18.
The EC declared the poll dates 13 days after it announced the schedule for Himachal Pradesh, kicking up a major controversy with the opposition alleging that BJP was being allowed to rain pre-poll goodies for Gujarat where the saffron party has not lost an assembly election since 1995.
The voting schedule is expected to bring the poll broth to boil in Gujarat where Congress looks to ride on resentment over GST implementation in a business-friendly state, dissatisfaction of Patels with BJP and benefit from alliances with caste-based leaders.
The contests in Gujarat since PM Narendra Modi first became chief minister in 2001 have always been hard fought even though BJP has come out on top and this will be the first time since 2002 that he will not be CM. With
being the power base that propelled Modi to the national stage, the election revolves around him and he is BJP’s biggest poll card.
A BJP loss in the bastion will give the opposition, which has not made much headway since Modi’s big win in May 2014, a serious boost and help soften the blow caused by Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s turn towards BJP. It will lift the opposition’s spirit ahead of elections in Karnataka next year where Congress is facing a stiff challenge. Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are also due towards the end of 2018, and an upset for BJP in Gujarat will help Congress better exploit the incumbency of BJP regimes in those states.
BJP is banking on its strong organisational network and the campaigning skills of Modi who can be expected to outline the stakes for a PM from Gujarat. With two opinion polls giving BJP a clear 10% vote advantage over Congress despite the woes over GST and demonetisation and local incumbencies such as the Patel reservation demand, the saffron party will have reasons to believe that it can get the better of its rival despite a contentious and bitter poll.
The coming weeks are expected to see Modi undertake a vigorous campaign where he will address rallies in Gujarati rather than giving speeches in Hindi when he has inaugurated projects in the state recently.
The battle is being fought equally hard on social media where Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s tweets and remarks are seen to have become sharper and have gained more traction. The re-tweets of anti-BJP handles have also gone up and BJP has now begun to hit back with greater efforts in its strategy for social media.
The poll debate in the state is being watched closely as Modi will not be able to attack Congress for heading a central government inimical to Gujarat. The PM has so far spoken of development and attacked Congress for doubting BJP’s “vikas” credentials, accusing it of having prevented him from taking up projects in the state.
The first phase of polling in Gujarat will be held on December 9, exactly a month after polling gets over in Himachal, and will cover 89 assembly seats across 19 districts. In the second phase, 93 seats spread over 14 districts will go to polls.
In the window that was available since the Himachal Pradesh polls were announced, schemes and projects worth nearly Rs 11,000 crore were announced in Gujarat. BJP defended the time gap saying that the EC had acted to ensure that the state does not have to suffer an exceptionally long spell of the model code of conduct.