In Gujarat, Modi and Gandhi Try A Dry Run for the General Election

This article first appeared on Riding the Elephant.

For past few weeks, the two leaders of India's main political parties have been slugging it out in the western state of Gujarat as if they were engaged in a national general election campaign.

They have both been fighting for their political futures, using the state's current assembly election as the springboard for India's next general election in March-April 2019.

Gujarat is the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi, where his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has ruled for 22 years and he was a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014.

His aim in the current election campaign has been to ensure that the BJP does not win fewer than the 116 seats in the 182-seat assembly that it won in the last election in 2012, and maybe adds significantly to that number.

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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Dahegam, some 40km from Ahmedabad, on November 25, 2017. Voters in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat are going to the polls against the opposition Congress Party in what will be a key test for India's premier. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty

The other top leader is Rahul Gandhi, who has gained that ranking this week by being confirmed as president of the Congress Party, a post he will take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi on December 16.

His aim has been to demonstrate that, after years of shirking responsibility and failing to emerge as a political leader, he is now capable of reviving the party's flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019. In Gujarat, that means reducing the BJP's majority in the assembly by significantly increasing the 60 seats that Congress won in 2012.

After a two-day visit to Gujarat this week, my assessment is that Gandhi has failed in the campaign, which officially closed Monday night (today is the second and final day of voting) dramatically to increase Congress's position.

The party will almost certainly gain a few seats, but probably not enough to embarrass Modi – though the BJP certainly will not win the 150 seats extravagantly claimed by Amit Shah, the party's president.

Experienced journalists and other observers in the state ducked giving me forecasts, saying the election was too close to call, and some opinion polls have forecast a surge for Congress.

The first signs of any surprises will come when exit polls are announced this evening. The count takes place on December 18.

My assessment is primarily based on the most convincing argument I heard in Gujarat – that Modi is regarded by voters as their man, who they are proud to have sent to Delhi as prime minister. They do not want to do anything to harm his national standing and thus reduce his chances of winning again in the next general election.

This is despite undoubted widespread dissatisfaction with the current Gujarat state government, which has failed to perform well on development and social issues under two chief ministers since Modi moved to Delhi in 2014. After 22 years, many voters believe it is time for a change, but will not abandon Modi.

Demonetisation and GST

It is also despite the fact that there is anger in some areas about Modi's controversial policies of demonetisation last November, when he cancelled 86 percent of bank notes overnight, and a new sales tax (GST) that he introduced in July as a breakthrough equivalent only to India's declaration of independence from Britain in 1947.

Both demonetization and GST were badly implemented. Across the country, they have seriously disrupted traders' and other small businesses' traditionally informal cash-based and tax-free transactions.

In Gujarat there is widespread resentment, especially in the western city of Surat, which is a diamond and textile centre, and in Saurashtra, where the BJP is believed to have done badly in the first phase of voting on December 9.

Local issues have played little part in the election campaign, despite Gandhi's attempts to play up the state government's failings with a 50-page development-oriented election manifesto. He has tried to highlight issues such as water supply shortages, and secondary and higher education, which is predominantly supplied expensively by the private sector.

Gandhi has managed for the first time to relate well to vast crowds at rallies, showing humour and sensitivity that has often been missing in the past. Observers say that the Congress party's organisation in the state has also improved considerably and that, for the first time in many years, the party has been making a concerted effort to win.

Strangely, that is reported not to have been so earlier when Ahmed Patel, an MP and Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, played a leading role in the organisation.

Gandhi has, however, sometimes got his facts wrong, for instance suggesting that a Tata Motors factory set up with generous state government loans to produce the company's unsuccessful Nano car was closing – it is producing a successful new model. He has a reputation for failing to master and understand a brief, and this has been evident at various times during the campaign.

Modi and other BJP politicians abandoned his usual focus on vikas (development) as a rallying cry when he realised how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government's performance.

He then focussed on praising his own record and personally denigrating Gandhi. He also turned to populist gambits, raising the spectre of Pakistan (which borders Gujarat) as a threat – something the BJP has often done in past election campaigns when worried about voting intentions.

Pakistan Congress collusion

After former Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh attended a private dinner given in Delhi last week for a former Pakistan foreign minister, Modi unrealistically alleged that Pakistan was colluding with Congress to bring down the BJP in Gujarat.

He seemed to have no worries about dramatically lowering the tone of the political campaign and breaking convention by implicitly denigrating a respected former prime minister, presumably believing that the line would win the BJP voter support.

He also mocked Gandhi for suddenly visiting a large number of Hindu temples, which Gandhi had done in order to counter the BJP's appeal as a Hindu-focussed party.

If hyperactivity is sometimes a sign of both a desperation to win and a fear of defeat, then Modi's frenetic saturation of Gujarat with political rallies and speeches must indicate that the BJP was worried about losing more than a handful of seats to Gandhi's energetic campaign.

In a final publicity flourish, on Monday Modi left Ahmedabad from the city's Sabarmati River in a seaplane – an aircraft so rarely seen in India that one newspaper carried a description of what it is. Gandhi mocked the flight as a gimmick, but, for Gujarat voters, it was probably yet another example of what can be achieved by their former chief minister.

If his populist tactics have worked, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government. What is not so clear is whether Congress is doing well enough for Gandhi to have begun to establish himself as a viable Congress president.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).

In Gujarat, Modi and Gandhi Try A Dry Run for the General Election | Opinion