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In Gujarat, its candidates versus party

Amberish K Diwanji in Ahmedabad | April 20, 2004 04:34 IST

Gujarat is all set to go to the polls on April 20, in the first of the four-phase elections. Candidates are busy ensuring that their supporters are present in all the booths to ensure that voters are not intimidated or made to change their mind at the last minute.

The state, with 26 seats on the block, is witnessing a straight fight between India's two largest parties - the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress party. Only in the Rajkot city is the Nationalist Congress Party contesting while the Congress has not fielded any candidate.

For the citizens of this state, it is not so much of choosing between the parties themselves but of deciding whether to vote for the candidate or the party.

In most constituencies, the BJP is facing an overwhelming anti-incumbency backlash, including in state capital Gandhinagar, represented by none other than Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani. People across the state have complained at how tardy the party representatives are, that too little work has been done over the past five years.

"Can you believe that Jayaben Thakkar actually returned Rs 5crore of her development fund (of Rs 10crore over 5 years) because she was unable to utilise it," asked Ajit Dighe, a resident of Vadodara. "She has done nothing in the past five years and will get no support from the citizens."

But despite the anger at individual candidates, there are still many who believe that the BJP is a better party, especially when it comes to protecting the interests of the Hindus. "I will vote for the BJP because the party is more important (than the candidate)," said a college-going student in Vadodara.

A senior Congress leader says it will be a case of choosing between candidates (mostly Congress) or the party (mostly BJP).

A BJP leader doesn't agree, saying people will vote for the BJP because of the massive development work it has done. In fact, on the fašade of the BJP headquarters at Khanpur, Ahmedabad, is a huge poster showing industries, electricity, and water, besides the usual faces of its leaders.

"In the Lok Sabha election, people vote for the better party at the Centre, and that is clearly the BJP," says the BJP leader.

The Congress officially says it is hoping to improve its tally from the miserable five it holds at present to at least 13. But sources say a more realistic figure would be eight to 10 even as various surveys claim that the Congress will only get between three to five seats.

The Hindutva sentiment is still alive, even though it is no longer articulated as openly as before.

"I am not happy with the BJP at all, and I really dislike the local candidate who has done absolutely nothing. But how can I vote for the Congress; that will mean a Muslim victory," said a shopkeeper in Amreli.

The BJP has been ruling Gujarat since 1991 and anti-incumbency is all pervasive. In fact, so high was the anti-BJP sentiment in 2001 that the central leadership was forced to replace then chief minister Keshubhai Patel with Narendra Modi in a desperate bid to placate its supporters. But the move brought forth its own set of problems, especially resentment of the Patels at losing a chief minister of their caste.

Then came Godhra and the riots, and suddenly everything changed into a question of Hindu versus Muslims. The BJP swept the December 2002 elections, winning the largest number of seats in the bargain, as caste and local issues were simply swept away by a strong Hindutva wave.

But two years after Godhra and the violence, a relatively peaceful Gujarat is asking uncomfortable questions about development issues giving rise to an anti-incumbency factor whose effect will be seen only after the ballots are counted on May 13.

The BJP leader insists that an anti-incumbency factor against the state government will not hurt the central government since the voters of Gujarat are intelligent enough to differentiate between central issues and state issues.

But Harish Joshi (name changed), a government employee in Gandhinagar, makes no such distinction. "The party ruling at the Centre and in the state is the BJP. Surely the central leaders can control the BJP leaders in the state and ensure that our needs are met, that development takes place," he said.

Joshi resides in a suburb of Ahmedabad that falls under Gandhinagar. He insists that he will vote against the BJP but not all his neighbours will ditch the party. "For them, voting for the BJP is still a case of asserting their Hindu identity. In Ahmedabad, that matters more," he said.

The voters of Gujarat will cast their vote on April 20. And on May 13, the people of India will know whether the Gujarati voter preferred the candidate or the party.

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