PM Modi looms large in India state polls

November 29, 2022 4:05 pm

[Source: Indian Times]

The western Indian state of Gujarat is set to choose its next government in a two-phase election that begins on Thursday.

Pre-poll surveys have predicted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win a majority of the 182 seats in the state for a record seventh time in a row, defeating the main opposition Congress party and new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Results will be announced on 8 December.

Analysts say that the biggest factor in favour of the BJP is Mr Modi’s appeal among voters.

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“It is [Mr Modi’s] iconic, larger-than-life Hindu hriday samrat (the king of the Hindu heart) image which draws all the votes,” says political scientist Ghanshyam Shah.

Gujarat has a close connection with India’s current prime minister: Mr Modi was chief minister of the state for 12 years since 2002 and it was here that he polished his brand of strident Hindu nationalism, established his paradigm of development and his version of governance that is visible in several national policies.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Mr Modi is the face of the BJP’s election campaign in the state.

Gujarat’s chief minister Bhupendra Patel – the state’s third since Mr Modi stepped down to become India’s prime minister in 2014 – asks for votes in Mr Modi’s name, as do other BJP candidates.

The discourse of Mr Modi-vs-the-rest is so dominant that even the bridge collapse tragedy in Morbi district in the state just a month ago – in which 135 people died – isn’t really an election issue.

Then there’s the uncertainty caused by the AAP’s entry. Pre-poll surveys say that anti-BJP votes could be split between the Congress and the AAP, which could give the governing party a bigger majority than the record 127 out of 182 seats it won in 2002.

A 4 November survey by polling agency C-Voter has predicted anywhere from 131-139 seats for the BJP, 31-39 for the Congress and 7-15 for the AAP. Some other surveys have predicted between 115 and 125 seats for the BJP.

In the months leading up to the election, all three major parties in the fray have tried to woo voters by making lofty promises and trashing their opponents.

The Congress calls the AAP a “vote-breaker” in a conventionally bi-polar state.

The AAP, in turn, accuses the Congress of allowing the BJP’s “misrule” to continue since 1995, when the right-wing party first won the election.

And BJP president JP Nadda, who released the party’s manifesto over the weekend, has ridiculed his rivals’ poll promises and claimed that the BJP is winning hands down.

Federal home minister Amit Shah, also from the state and among the BJP’s top campaigners, has said that the party “will break all previous records”.

The BJP has also promised to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – a single personal law for all citizens that experts have said would be “fiendishly difficult” to frame – if it comes to power.

While it’s in the lead, the BJP is not complacent. This month, Mr Modi has held more than 20 rallies in the stateand announced a slew of public schemes worth 2 trillion rupees ($24.5bn; £20.3bn). Two huge industrial projects which were slated to start operations in Maharashtra state were recently shifted to Gujarat.

Mr Modi has campaigned extensively in state elections before, but some analysts believe that the time he has spent canvassing ballots in Gujarat hints at “some panic in the BJP camp”. They also point to the fact that party leaders have also been using Hindu nationalist rhetoric in speeches instead of focusing on the government’s track record.

It’s an allegation the party’s supporters deny.

Mahendra Kajiwala, a businessman in Surat city, says the party needs to return to power to continue “the path of infrastructural development which Narendra Modi initiated”.

“I don’t know about [Hindu nationalist rhetoric], but I can say the BJP led by Mr Modi will win even if such issues are not raised,” he adds.

But the BJP has been facing some challenges too. Around 19 lawmakers who were not made candidates are contesting independently.

The state government has also been facing protests by government employees over issues including salaries and pensions; an inter-state river-linking project had to be scrapped following huge protests by tribal people; and a law aimed at prohibiting the movement of stray cows in public places had drawn outrage from cattle-rearers.