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Not a smooth ride for BJP in Gujarat

Amberish K Diwanji in Gandhinagar | April 18, 2004 17:22 IST

If, as many suspect, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani becomes PM in the next few years, he will be the second person from Gujarat to occupy the post -- the first being Morarji Desai in 1977.

He has been campaigning hard in his Gandhinagar constituency, which encompasses the state's capital city and parts of Ahmedabad.

His wife Kamla and son Jayant have been camping in Gandhinagar for over two weeks while daughter Pratibha keeps flying down.

On the face of it, victory should be easy for Advani. Gujarat was one of the first states to turn towards the Hindutva politics propounded by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Gujaratis have contributed funds in huge numbers for the building of a Ram temple and volunteers have gone across to Ayodhya as and when required.

The BJP's ideological allies, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, have made deep inroads across the state.

And in the aftermath of the attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, which sparked statewide riots, Gujarat's communal divide and politics was clear: the Hindus voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the assembly election.

Yet this time there are some differences. First, the BJP is not contesting on the basis of Hindutva or the Ram temple, as it had in the past, but on the basis of development, good governance, and its promise to make India a developed nation by 2020. The thrust has so far been on aspects such as providing water and jobs, keeping prices low, and ensuring peace.

Secondly, with the Hindus' anger against Muslims over the Godhra violence abating, issues such as the need for water, roads, and jobs are in the spotlight.

And lastly, there is an anti-incumbency wave. In fact, people are angry with the BJP state government, but the flak is being taken by many of the Lok Sabha candidates since the party is in power at the Centre also.

In Amreli town and constituency, in the heart of the Kathiawad peninsula and Saurashtra region, Lok Sabha representative Dilip Sanghani defends his track record. "There is a major highway that allows Amreli residents to go to Rajkot or Ahmedabad with ease, the broad-gauge conversion work is underway and will be completed soon, and electricity has been provided without cuts. Only in the area of water we have had some problems, but even that is being taken care of with work on a checkdam in the small river that passes by the city."

But the anti-incumbency factor is hard to ignore. The biggest demand in this region is for water, and Amreli residents have been complaining that they receive water in their taps once in eight days or so. To survive the hot summers, women have been forced to collect water from tube-wells or purchase it.

"How can we vote for the BJP when it cannot provide us water," says Dilip Patel.

Jivabhai Solanki echoes the sentiment. "Despite our consistent demand for more water, little has been done. We have to teach this government a lesson."

Congress candidate Virji Thumar is going for the kill, stressing on the lack of water and/or the fact that the broad-gauge is still so far away.

Where the BJP scores is in its massive organisation and its deep network at the grassroots level. The Congress, which has built an imposing building in Ahmedabad, simply lacks that ability. And Congress infighting, already well known, continues apace.

Anti-incumbency alone will not be enough. The BJP holds 21 of the state's 26 seats, and the Hindutva factor is still alive, especially in urban areas. And in rural areas, the BJP's network and its ability to get village heads on its side will help it win the day. Villagers tend to vote en bloc for the candidate selected by their chiefs.

In the Gandhinagar zone, state government employees are seething at the measures undertaken by Chief Minister Narendra Modi (many of them perhaps necessary for a state that isn't exactly in the pink of financial health), and claim they will vote for the Congress. But it is doubtful if this will actually affect Advani's fortunes; at best it will dent his margin of victory.

BJP sources at the party headquarters claim they will win up to 24 seats this time, but privately add that the tally may go down to 18.

Congress sources boast that the party will now win at least 10 to 12 seats, though realistically it might, just might, increase its tally by a couple of seats.

It is believed that while the Congress might perform better in Saurashtra and retain the seats it holds in south Gujarat, it might lose out in the north. Little wonder then that Modi spent the last day of campaigning extolling his party's virtues in the north. Also, it was in Patan from where Modi held rallies and a gaurav yatra, recalling that Patan was the capital of the Solanki dynasty.

For the BJP, every seat won in Gujarat counts, because it would mean a step towards achieving its long term goal of being able to win an election entirely on its own.

For the Congress, winning in Gujarat would be a step towards improving the party's fortunes in the state that gave the country two of its three greatest leaders ever: Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel.

By the way, the third great man, Jawaharlal Nehru, is a disliked figure in the state, especially central Gujarat.

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