The Congress challenge will be rendered meaningless if it cannot alter the equation in the first phase.
The fierce campaign for the first phase of Gujarat polling on Saturday, in which polling was held in 89 of the 182 seats in the state or nearly 50 per cent, did not ebb in intensity at all. Even as votes were being cast through the day in Saurashtra and South Gujarat, the geography of the first phase of the election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, continued to rage against the Congress in areas where polling day is December 14.
Mr Modi has led the BJP campaign from the front. That is his energetic style, which was on view in the Lok Sabha poll in 2014 and the Uttar Pradesh state election earlier this year. But what caught observers unawares was the extremely defensive nature of the PM’s campaign.
Mr Modi practically skipped development issues and appeared to go hell for leather against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was able to compose for his party a credible and clever campaign, surprising everyone, most of all the BJP.
Especially towards the end of the first phase, the PM gave the impression of trying every trick in the book of demagogues to draw public sympathy for himself as an individual. There was also an effort to link the Congress with anti-national forces in the voters’ mind. The message was clear and simple: the BJP cannot afford to be seen as turning in a below-par performance.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Modi campaign was the relatively thin crowds, especially when compared with the spectacular rallies of political insurgent Hardik Patel, whose aim is to have the saffron party defeated, although he comes of RSS-BJP stock.
The young Patidar leader has risen to notice in the past two years with his demand for reservation for his community and his intensive campaign on issues relating to unemployment, farmers’ despair, lack of infrastructure outside the cities — all so-called “secular” issues, rather than emotive questions relating to religion and communal politics, on which the BJP tried to direct the focus.
The Patidars were the backbone of the BJP’s social base in the past two decades, and it is sections of this community, especially the younger lot, who appeared to be challenging the BJP’s hold on power. Saurashtra-South Gujarat is the Patidar stronghold. In 2012, the BJP had picked up 64 of the 89 seats here and the same trend was observed in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The Congress challenge will be rendered meaningless if it cannot alter the equation in the first phase. The Patidar revolt of Mr Patel, to the extent it has had some effect, could work in favour of the challenger only if the Congress has been able to rig up an effective enough organisation for every phase of the election process.