Gujarat has been witnessing heightened political activity in the past month with elections drawing near. Prime Minister Modi has visited the state thrice in the past month. The prime minister launched his soft campaign by holding a roadshow with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, during his visit to inaugurate the bullet train project last month. Last week, he was in his home town Vadnagar launching several welfare projects. He will be attending the concluding function of the party’s Gujarat Gaurav Yatra on 16 October.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has also announced changes to GST with a focus on small and medium traders of the state, who were reportedly unhappy. Rahul Gandhi is in Gujarat for a three-day tour holding rallies and interacting with voters as part of the second leg of the Navsarjan Yatra. While opinion polls suggest a BJP sweep, some reports claim internal polls indicate the party will not have it easy.
BJP is completely banking on Modi’s charisma and Amit Shah’s organisational skills to sail it through. After all, neither Vijay Rupani nor Nitin Patel nor Jitu Vaghani have a similar fan following across the state. Most of the candidates will be seeking votes in the name of local lad Modi who went on to become the prime minister. BJP has carefully crafted a strategy to win the polls for the fourth consecutive time.
Playing the Gujarati Asmita Card
Modi during his visit to Vadnagar played the emotion card to the hilt. He was quoted by newspapers as saying:
Coming back to one’s hometown and receiving a warm welcome is special. I go back with your blessings and assure you that I will work even harder for the nation. Whatever I am today is due to values I have learnt on this soil – among you all in Vadnagar.
BJP will play the card that a victory for the party in the state is validation of Modi’s tenure both as the former chief minister of state and prime minister of the country. It would also give the message that any loss in home state will not only be an embarrassment to Modi but would also hurt Gujarati pride.
Highlighting Modi’s Achievements as PM
BJP will highlight Modi’s achievements at the centre– from surgical strikes to taming China in Doklam, from fighting corruption with demonetisation to simplifying tax structure through GST.
Poll campaign will be replete with claims about how Modi has raised the stature of country internationally, how he has been working in the direction of ‘Gareeb Kalyan’, striving for a ‘Swachh Bharat’ and trying to provide housing to all by 2022. BJP’s campaign will focus on how Prime Minister Modi is building a new India and has taken it upon himself to cleanse the system by targeting shell companies and benami properties.
Modi will be portrayed as a man on a mission against corrupt parties and leaders. Some of the slogans being tested are "yeh imandari aur beimani ke beech ladai hai" (it's a fight between the honest and corrupt") and "Fakir versus Shehzada" (an apparent dig at Rahul Gandhi).
Presidential Style Elections
These elections are all about Modi for the BJP. He is occupying the maximum space on posters and is scheduled to hold big rallies with a massive crowd. After all, it was his ‘Gujarat model of governance’ which attracted the voters nationally and propelled him to the prime minister’s chair. PM Modi is expected to travel four times each month for the next two months.
With Modi at the helm, BJP has been successfully following the ‘top down’ campaign style. Modi and Shah finalise candidates, knit alliances, draw campaign designs and lead from the front. Votes are sought in the name of Modi. The simple and clear message disseminated is that Modi at the centre and through his representative in the state will ensure development of the state. Campaign material is littered with pictures of the central leadership.
This works well for Modi who then runs state government through remote control from Delhi which will ensure nobody could challenge him or Shah in near future.
While BJP would want to turn this elections into Presidential style, Congress should not fall for this trap. If Gujarat elections is converted into a contest between Modi and Rahul, BJP would win hands down.
Localised Campaign to Help Congress
Congress party should run a very localised campaign. They should refrain from attacking centre and Modi. Modi is very popular in the state despite reports of anti-incumbency. Even a section of critics feel the state was doing wonders till he was at the helm. Successors have not been able to keep pace with his development model giving a clean chit to Modi.
Congress needs to attack the sitting MLAs of BJP for their non-performance. The party should try and take advantage of anti-incumbency against these MLAs. It should highlight the bankruptcy of top leadership of state and try to portray that they cannot take the state forward on the road to development.
Modi cannot run the state as well as he did from centre through his representative. The focus has to be on how Gujarat has slipped in rankings on HDI and economic parameters post Modi.
Constituency-specific detailing will help the party. Strategy should be tweaked depending on seat demographics. Wherever traders are in majority, exploit anger against the government on demonetization and GST. Wherever Patels are in majority, focus on measures to pass on reservation benefits to economically poorer sections of community. For farmers focus should be on agrarian stress. In Ahmedabad, the focus should be on the condition of road infrastructure post heavy rains.
To conclude, Congress cannot win a Modi versus Rahul contest in Gujarat. However, it has a better chance if it succeeds in converting elections into 182 mini elections, fought on local issues, focused on non-performance/weak links of BJP MLAs. While BJP talks of nationalism, national security, corruption, foreign affairs and other national issues, Congress should focus on roads, drinking water, education, healthcare, jobs, farmers, traders, dalits and other regional issues. ‘Go Local’ should be the mantra of Congress if it wants to improve its tally and give BJP a run for their money. It’s an uphill task though!
(Amitabh Tiwari is an ex corporate and investment banker turned political consultant and commentator. He can be reached @politicalbaaba. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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