Narendra Modi faces his big test of popularity today as 87 assembly constituencies goes to the polls in the first phase of polling in Gujarat. Apart from the fact that all polling phases and areas are important in an election, this phase of polling has added significance because it includes the region of Saurashtra, the stronghold of erstwhile senior colleague turned arch rival Keshubhai Patel. The BJP is perceived to be fighting two electoral battles in these elections, one in the Patel community-dominated Saurashtra and the other in the rest of Gujarat.
As per the break up after the delimitation notification, 48 seats in Saurashtra, 10 seats in Kutch and 29 seats in South Gujarat will go to the polls today.
During the last assembly elections, the BJP won 61 seats of the 87 seats where polling is being held today. Out of 58 seats of Saurashtra-Kutch region, the BJP had won 43. Roughly translated, it means that the BJP success rate in the region was slightly over 80 percent. Having achieved almost the peak, the party many believe could only go down from there.
The polling pattern during the day, will in fact, decide whether Modi will be able to hold on to his victory margin of 117 seats in 182-member Gujarat assembly or will slide lower. If the losses in the region are marginal then the party can hope to make it up with some gains in central and south Gujarat, but if the losses are substantial as some predict, then Modi and his team will have to work even harder to ensure that their supporters turn up in large numbers for polling in next phase of voting on 17 December. After all Modi’s future course in politics depends to a great extent on how well he does when the results are declared on 20 December.
The stakes are much higher for Modi as he needs more than just a simple majority in this elections and the Saurashtra region is one big hurdle that he has to cross, if he has to advance smoothly to fulfill his ambitions at national level. In this context the “Keshubhai factor” acquires greater importance, on whose success the Congress is banking on as much as the 84-year-old Patel leader.
Keshubhai with other disgruntled leaders of the BJP and Sangh Parivar have formed Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and are hoping to make the fight a three-way battle. The principal social-electoral support base for the party comes from an influential Leuva Patels, the community which Keshubhai belongs to.
In this phase of polling 77 Patel candidates are in fray. The GPP has 31 candidates from this community, the BJP comes second with 25 and Congress with 21. And this does not include those fielded by fringe parties. The reason is not difficult to see, the community constitute between 27 to 28 (Leuva & Karva included) percent of the population. Their numerical strength, with their dominance in business and agriculture, makes them an important vote bank for all the parties.
A recent socio-religious congregation of Leuva Patels for a foundation laying ceremony of the Kholdadham temple at Kagvad in Saurashtra is adding a further twist to tale. It was attended by local community leaders, including contesting Leuva community candidates of all parties. Though the organiser of the meet, Naresh Patel, claimed it was completely apolitical event and ended with an appeal for all to vote irrespective of which party they voted for, there was reportedly a strong word of mouth campaign that Modi and BJP had to be defeated. This leaves GPP and the Congress, to benefit from it depending on how their strength in the constituencies.
The state BJP president RC Faldu and Rajkot district president are from the Leuva Patel community. Former Deputy chief minister and the Congress' Patel community face, Narhari Amin, has defected to the BJP, but party leaders are still not resting on this and went all out to woo the community. The GPP and the Congress have also been engaged in the same game, but perhaps with greater vigour.
The BJP strategists are attaching too much of hope on the first time voters and those below 30, who constitute over a quarter of total electorate. Their belief is that the younger voters do not attach as much importance to the caste factor as an agenda for development and its delivery which has been the peg of the BJP's campaign. Modi is held as a middle class icon and a hero fighting for Gujarati pride by more than a substantive chunk among these social groups and the BJP is hoping that will be enough to carry them successfully through this region.