The higher turnout of 68 percent in the first phase of polling in Gujarat seems to have surprised many people, especially political observers. What does this mean for the fortunes of the BJP and the Congress?
Key strategists in the BJP and Narendra Modi’s inner circle are showing rising confidence levels and say they have been working precisely for such an outcome over the last few months of campaigning. Come 20 December, they are hoping to flash 'V' signs like their leader always does.
However, higher turnouts have often been associated with a poor showing by incumbents since it would mean voter anger is coming to a boil. In Uttar Pradesh, high voter turnout led to Mayawati's defeat.
But Modi's supporters believe that all conventional wisdom is irrelevant to Gujarat, where Narendra Modi's rise has overshadowed many smaller issues and concerns. His personal charisma and sharp focus on governance may yet deliver him a hat-trick.
Secondly, the higher voter turnout in the first phase has implications for the second phase on Monday. Yesterday’s voting pattern is now being discussed all over Gujarat, and this could ensure an even higher turnout—possibly 70 percent—in the second phase. Ninety-five assembly constituencies—mostly in the Central, Northern and Southern parts of Gujarat—go to the polls on 17 December, and here Modi faces less competition than in Saurashtra-Kutch.
In Monday's phase, there will be no Keshubhai factor to counter Modi. In fact, Modi is the only factor. BJP strategists reckon that whatever their losses in Saurashtra, they should more than make up for it in the second phase. If that actually happens, Modi could walk home with a larger mandate than in 2007, when he got 117 seats.
But then, the BJP cannot count its chickens before they hatch. In politics, every day and every hour before polling counts. It has to mobilise harder for phase two.
In the Congress camp, the dominant feeling till yesterday was that with low polling, and with no emotive issues to bring out the hardcore BJP voter, the core anti-incumbency vote will do the trick. Congress strategists said that in the absence of any "maut ka saudagar" or "Mian Musharraf" type of references in the campaign, there was nothing to drive the BJP voter to the polling booth.
In short, Congress sources believed that a "lower voter turnout will benefit the Congress and a higher voter turnout the BJP".
But that tune has now changed after the 68 percent turnout. The party is now claiming that the higher turnout means they have half-won the battle. State Congress president Arjun Modhwadia said "higher turnout means that the Congress is surely going to win. This shows the anger of voters against the current government, which had reduced itself to serving only the interests of the rich, high and mighty. Now, an aam aadmi chief minister will rule from Gandhinagar."
The Congress now says the high turnout means Patels and Muslims must have turned out in large numbers to oust Modi. However, this does not quite square with reality. There is a perceptible lack of voter anger against Modi, despite some disgruntlement over local grievances. Secondly, not all Patels are Leuva Patels, and not all Leuva Patels are anti-Modi. The aspiring younger generation among Patels identifies more with Modi than with Keshubai.
This is not to say that the Keshubhai factor is not damaging the BJP's prospects in Saurashtra, but the impact has probably been overestimated. The BJP is expected to suffer losses in places like Visavadar from where the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) chief is fighting. Neighbouring constituencies may also go against the BJP in case of a close vote. But the BJP had always expected to do less well in Saurashtra because in 2007 it had scored big with an 80 percent win rate. From there, the only way is down. The party’s hopes to compensate for the losses in Saurashtra by bigger wins in Central and South Gujarat, where its tally had gone down by 20 seats in the last elections.
The BJP’s in-house psephologist, GVL Narshimha Rao, gives GPP only one seat in Saurashtra - that of Keshubhai Patel. He says the higher turnout indicates only one thing: it's advantage Modi.
The party is banking heavily on first time voters and voters below 30, who appear to be Modi’s main social support base and constitute around 27 percent of total voter strength. Women are coming out in large numbers to vote. Women constitute a strong base for Modi, and he has been playing to their sentiments and aspirations. This time, apart from the Congress' free housing scheme for women, which BJP has managed to neutralise with its own housing promises, there is no major factor which could swing women votes away from BJP.
Modi supporters are sensing victory may be round the corner. The Congress begs to differ.