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Gujarat opposition has many cards, but BJP has the trump card — Modi

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GST, note ban may have affected traders, but Gujaratis still prefer PM Modi; Congress-Hardik Patel pact may be a cause of concern for BJP.

New Delhi: The ruling BJP faces twin challenges in the key Gujarat assembly elections next month – the burden of 22 years as the incumbent in the state and another three-and-a-half years at the Centre; and the fresh narrative the Congress has tried to weave through Rahul Gandhi’s intensive campaign, a rainbow caste coalition as well as a savvy social media and communication strategy.

As ThePrint travelled through the Saurashtra region and south Gujarat over the last two weeks, there were two key questions that cropped up. Is the anger against the ruling BJP enough to topple it on its own turf? Has the Congress been able to cash in on anti-BJP sentiments, if any, to bring in a change in government?

The answer to both questions is far from an emphatic yes.

The BJP, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, still enjoys significant goodwill in the state. Development initiatives like roads, electricity, drinking water, housing and most importantly, women-centric schemes have ensured there isn’t deep-rooted resentment against Modi’s BJP. It helps that the party and its top leader are seen as being ‘clean’, without the baggage of corruption the Congress carries.

Demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST) are the two primary causes of concern for the BJP nationally. However, it seems demonetisation is no longer an electoral and political issue and if at all, there is still a section which believes Modi showed decisiveness in trying to unearth black money.

GST, however, has hit businesses in Gujarat hard. In Surat, which saw protests for several days after GST, the textile and diamond industries are yet to recover from the blow, leading to anger against the BJP for what they call “faulty implementation” of this policy.

Despite their anger, several traders said the BJP will come back to power because of the lack of a credible alternative. They, however, did specify the Congress should come as a “stronger opposition to keep the BJP in check”. Surat has 16 seats, of which BJP won 15 in the 2012 elections.

In the ceramic hub of Morbi in the Saurashtra region, the Patidar agitation could prove a bigger blow for the BJP than the GST and the note ban. Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s pact with the Congress is another issue that could indeed hurt the BJP.

The other local issue expected to damage the BJP most in the electorally crucial Saurashtra region was the resentment among cotton and groundnut farmers who don’t get adequate prices for their produce.

In Junagadh district, while farmers complained of low, unfair prices, they would still back the BJP, which has provided “good roads, electricity and water supply” to them. The Congress, they say, symbolises corruption and lawlessness.

Apart from this image issue, the lack of a credible face as leader in the Congress either in the state or nationally has meant the party has so far been unable to cash in on anti-BJP sentiments in a major way. Most importantly, despite Rahul Gandhi’s intensive campaign, the youth does not seem to see him or his party as a desirable alternative.

In Rajkot, ThePrint spoke to several first-time voters and found that Modi continues to remain their leader of choice. The young Patidars, however, back Hardik Patel, and thus, the Congress.

Besides Patidars, Muslims continue to throw their weight behind the Congress and are deeply upset with the BJP over “its interference in the triple talaq issue”.

However, the BJP could make inroads into the tribal belt — a traditional Congress vote bank. In tribal-dominated Dangs, voters seem tired of their Congress MLA and appreciate the BJP for initiatives like roads, schools, hospitals as well as the Ujjwala scheme.

The BJP’s other big selling points — the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the under-construction ‘Statue of Unity’ get mixed reactions at their very source — the Narmada district. While some say both these bring nothing for the locals and water from the dam is only benefiting the Saurashtra region, others say it would help encourage tourism, employment and local businesses.

The Saurashtra region accounts for 58 of the state’s 182 assembly seats and has been the BJP’s backbone in Gujarat. South Gujarat has 35 seats.

While central and north Gujarat might well throw up a completely different narrative, it does seem that incumbent BJP is still popular, with Modi’s charisma continuing to go strong. The PM is expected to run a high-pitch campaign in the last leg, playing on the Gujarat ‘asmita’ (pride) and ‘vikas’ (development) narrative.

The Congress, meanwhile, might gain from its caste coalition but it hasn’t quite been able to create an aggressive mood for change among the people of Gujarat.

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