Modi may find it tough in December assembly polls

By Rajeev Khanna, IANS

Gandhinagar : Five years after his thumping victory, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi faces a tough challenge in upcoming assembly polls whose outcome may well determine the timetable of the next general election.

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Political sources say it is not going to be an easy ride in the state for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) although Modi, enjoying the backing of the BJP brass, is confident of returning to power in December. Stiff competition is however expected from not only the Congress but also dissidents within the BJP. Rebellion has raised its head in the BJP like never before and anti-Modi noises are getting louder by the day.

Modi, called the poster boy of not only the BJP but of the entire Sangh Parivar, led the party to a sweeping majority in 2002 when the party won 129 of the total 182 seats. That victory came in a year the party’s popularity was waning. It had lost two parliamentary bye-elections as well as local elections under the leadership of Modi’s predecessor Keshubhai Patel.

Modi was chief minister when the burning of 59 Hindu rail passengers by allegedly a Muslim mob at Godhra led to large-scale communal violence that led to some 1,000 deaths. Most victims were Muslims.

While Modi was criticised by civil society and the opposition for the manner in which his administration handled the violence, the communal polarisation that followed ensured his sweeping victory in December 2002.

But things changed soon. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 12 of 26 seats in the state. By this time dissidence within the BJP had started with some leaders criticising Modi for his ‘autocratic’ functioning.

Now, the dissidents, led by former chief ministers Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta, have come out in the open seeking Modi’s ouster. While Patel represents the powerful Patel community, Mehta is from Kutch. Patels, initially with the Congress, have been instrumental in the BJP’s growth in the state.

With Patel opposing Modi, a large number of Patels are expected not to back the chief minister.

The other key figures in the dissident camp are former union ministers Kanshiram Rana and Vallabh Kathiria. There are also some legislators. A strong face of the party in Vadodara, Nalin Bhatt, has joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

In the last two years a gulf has developed between Modi and Hindu hardliners, particularly over the way Modi stood by former party president L.K. Advani over his controversial remarks on Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Modi’s stand did not go well with the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal.

Despite losing the last civic elections in 2006, the Congress is upbeat. Its Gujarat unit president Bharat Sinh Solanki says: “It was the bottom the party hit. It has to go up from there.”

The Congress is likely to go for a poll pact with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Although the NCP did not win any seat in 2002, it prevented a Congress victory in more than 35 constituencies.

The BSP is a newcomer in Gujarat and, buoyed by its success in Uttar Pradesh, has decided to contest all the 182 assembly seats. But most analysts feel it is unlikely to seriously damage the BJP or the Congress.

What goes in Modi’s favour?

BJP sources say that he has grown as a personality in such a way that he has no match in either the BJP or the Congress.

The Congress is yet to announce a chief ministerial candidate. It is also to be seen if it can translate the anti-Modi mood into votes.

Modi’s supporters view him as a Vikas Purush. His Vibrant Gujarat summits have earned positive media comments. He now talks mostly about Gujarat’s development, keeping away from contentious issues that helped him in 2002.

The BJP leadership is in favour of giving him a free hand because the party wants a victory in Gujarat, its bastion, at all costs. For the BJP, the Gujarat elections will draw the road map for the next Lok Sabha elections.

A good showing by the BJP in Gujarat will demoralise the Congress, which is facing a running battle with its Left allies. But if the BJP loses, a confident Congress could order fresh parliamentary elections.