Ahmedabad: At the peak of campaigning, days before the first phase of polls in Gujarat on Thursday, wes fan out to get a first-hand feel of the poll-pulse in the state.
The popularity of chief minister Narendra Modi, or as Congress would be hoping, the lack of it, could be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of assembly elections, at-least in south Gujarat.
Almost every BJP candidate we interacted with during a whirlwind and exhausting tour of the region had no qualms in saying that they were seeking votes in Modi’s name. Nothing else — neither they, nor the BJP — mattered.
BJP candidates said that there aren’t any major local issues that can help them get votes, and Modi was a safe bet for them. This seems to be the case not only in Surat, but also in the tribal-dominated Tapi, Navsari and Valsad districts. Strong disenchantment of voters, as well as candidates and parties, is another thing that I observed and felt.
As against festival-like times seen in the past, the current election hardly gave the feeling of one. Missing from action are banners and posters of political parties, as well as the public meetings, barring those of top leaders. A stray rickshaw or two blaring songs of political parties and urging voters to exercise their right to vote, served as reminders for the December 13 elections.
The people attributed lack of interest of voters, as well as parties and candidates, to the fact that results of many of the seats are a foregone conclusion. Many of them also put the blame for the dull environment on the Election Commission.
Over the last couple of years, Modi has worked very hard to break Congress’ stronghold on tribal voters. However, he is unlikely to make any major inroads in the coming elections. In fact, the Congress is likely to gain ground in south Gujarat.
Around noon on Saturday at a tea stall in SH 6, 50-something Hasmukhbhai Patel listlessly stares back when we ask him about the pulse of poll campaigning in and around his area. Patel’s languid response is, “Can’t tell who will win.” About five customers curiously look from the corner of their eye as they sip their tea, but do not care to join in the conversation.
When prodded further if he is going to vote, Patel says, “The BJP’s local candidate is good, I’ve known him for a long time. Congress candidate is also good, but I don’t know him.” When I ask him about Gujarat Parivartan Party, he gives a blank look.
Then I finally cut to the chase and ask him what he thinks of Narendra Modi’s high pitch campaign.
All he listlessly says is, “He’s all over the TV.”
Frustrated, I fire: “Why are people so uninterested in the political process this time? Aren’t you excited that Modi is going to become the prime minister if he wins here?” Finally, some spark. “Yes it would be good for him, but how will it benefit me? I get electricity for only eight hours for farming; local schoolteachers take combined classes for grades 1 to 7, so I am not happy with my kids’ education.
The only good thing is we now have roads everywhere. How will it help me if Modi becomes the PM?” Eventually, he voluntarily supplies, almost as if thinking loud, “People will vote for BJP because the local candidate is good. I will not vote thinking of Modi. He has probably done good work, but how has it helped me?”
This conversation is a metaphor of sorts for multiple conversations we had in the region over the weekend. The jargon to sum up the essence of this interaction is ‘anti-incumbency’. Had this conversation occurred in 2007, the five onlookers would have immediately pounced in assert that Modi’s work is fabulous and there is no alternative but to vote for him.
If it was 2007, Hasmukhbhai would have not bothered so much about the local candidate, and in fact, later in the conversation he admitted as much. Last but not the least, all the participants in this conversation, except myself, would have been much more excited about the fact that they will be casting their vote in four days.
Coming from Amdavad where Modi’s adulation is peaking, Patel’s disinterest is a revelation of sorts. The sense one gets from such interactions is that anti-incumbency certainly exists, but whether and how it affects Modi is the question.
People who had come to listen to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Keshod town (Junagadh district) looked confused after she finished her public meeting. They said they had no trouble understanding chief minister Narendra Modi when he addressed a meeting in Keshod a day earlier.
Further, the fact that the candidates of all the three main parties are new faces has been adding to their confusion. Till recently, Keshod was a constituency reserved for Schedule Castes. It became a general seat only after the latest delimitation.
There is a marked change in people’s awareness as you move from Keshod to Porbandar. Porbandar district has only two constituencies and both are dominated by the Maher
Hence the main political parties have all fielded Maher candidates. Congress and BJP have fielded Arjun Modhwadia and Babu Bokhiria, respectively, from Porbandar seat while BJP’s 3-time sitting MLA Karsan Odedara is contesting against NCP candidate Kandhal Jadeja from Kutiyana. A close contest is on the cards between Odedara and Jadeja.
The anti-incumbency factor is working against Odedara and Jadeja appears capable of snatching a surprise victory. In Porbandar, Bokhiria is believed to have an edge over Modhwadia but the pulse of the local voters seems to indicate that, at the end of day, the GPCC president might win by a very thin margin.
Moving to Bhavnagar, it seems the BJP has an advantage on 7 out a total of 9 seats in the district. Though a close contest is expected between Koli strongman Purushottam Solanki of the BJP and Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil in Bhavnagar Rural constituency, the seat will most probably be bagged by the BJP.
In five other constituencies, including Mahuva, Talaja, and Gariadhar, the saffron party is facing a challenge from Dr Kanubhai Kalasaria and four candidates of his Sadbhavna Manch. The BJP has a four-cornered fight on these seats as, apart from the Sadbhavna Manch, the Congress and the GPP have also fielded candidates here.
The only constituency in the region about which a prediction can be made with confidence is Visavadar. Gujarat Parivartan Party’s founder-president Keshubhai Patel is contesting against BJP’s sitting MLA Kanu Bhalala.
Workers of all political parties, including the BJP and the Congress, are unanimous in saying that Keshubapa will win by a big margin, not because of his image or the Leuva Patel factor but because of Bhalala’s poor performance in the last 10 years.