- A woman had her finger inked before casting her vote in Gujarat, Dec. 13.
The first phase of voting in Gujarat ended Thursday, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters casting their ballot in 83 constituencies for local assembly seats. The remaining voters get their chance on Monday.
The elections, no matter whom you ask, are first and foremost about Narendra Modi, the charismatic and polarizing chief minister of the state. A convincing win in Gujarat for his Bharatiya Janata Party will not only give Mr. Modi his third full-term as chief minister but boost his case as a top contender for the post of India’s prime minister when general elections take place in 2014.
But there are other interesting aspects to this election, too, involving issues and personalities from both the BJP and the opposition Congress party, which could shape state and national politics.
The Saurashtra Factor
In 2001, Narendra Modi took over as chief minister of Gujarat, displacing a veteran leader of the ruling BJP, Keshubhai Patel, the party’s best-known leader in the state.
He sulked but remained with the BJP for 11 years. Months before this election, however, he quit the BJP and formed his own Gujarat Parivartan Party.
Mr. Patel, while a well-known leader across the state, is especially influential in the sprawling Saurashtra region, where he is expected to win a few seats. More importantly, commentators say he could sway some voters away from the BJP to his party’s candidates instead, splitting the BJP vote and handing Congress wins in seats it would otherwise struggle to take.
Apart from Mr. Patel’s influence in Saurashtra, which has 48 assembly seats out of the state’s 182, what’s making the BJP nervous is the disaffection of Saurashtra’s cotton farmers. They have been hit hard by a drought earlier this year and are none-too-happy with Mr. Modi’s pro-industry stance, as they feel he’s not adequately sensitive to farmers’ needs.
The Cop’s Wife
In the last two elections, in 2002 and 2007, Narendra Modi cruised to victory in the constituency of Maninagar.
This time round, there’s a twist in the tale. Shweta Bhatt, the wife of a top cop in Gujarat, is the Congress party’s candidate in Maninagar. Ms. Bhatt and her husband, Sanjeev, are outspoken critics of Mr. Modi.
Sanjeev Bhatt has claimed that Mr. Modi didn’t do enough to stop the 2002 riots that claimed more than 1,000 lives, mostly Muslim. Mr. Modi has said he did nothing wrong.
Mr. Bhatt was jailed briefly in 2011 by the Gujarat police on an unrelated matter.
While no one doubts Mr. Modi’s ability to win the seat again in these elections if his margin of victory is significantly less than 87,000 votes – his margin in 2007 — Congress could claim a moral victory and focus attention on the legacy of the riots to counter Mr. Modi’s record of development and investment in the state.
Days before the first phase of Gujarat’s elections took place Thursday, one of Congress’s top leaders in the state, Narhari Amin, defected to the BJP along with several of his supporters.
Mr. Amin, one of the Congress party’s few popular leaders in the state, said he quit because the party didn’t name him and some of his key associates in their list of candidates for Gujarat’s assembly constituencies.
The Congress party hasn’t been able to form a government in Gujarat since 1995, with no single leader emerging to take on the charismatic yet controversial Mr. Modi. Mr. Amin’s exit is expected to further erode Congress’ chances of returning to power in the state.
The Rahul Gandhi Factor
Rahul Gandhi, widely seen as a prime minister-in-waiting, hasn’t made many appearances during the election campaign in Gujarat. But the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty has always been seen as a counterpoint to Mr. Modi, who also has ambitions of getting the country’s top job. Television channels have widely debated what a national matchup of Modi Vs Gandhi would mean.
If Congress were to significantly improve its tally of assembly seats in Gujarat, but still lose the elections, the party will likely cite it as an example of Mr. Gandhi’s popularity denting Mr. Modi’s sway over Gujaratis.
A good showing in Gujarat would also bolster Mr. Gandhi’s chances of being officially named as a prime ministerial contender by Congress, as he may be seen as the only leader capable of taking on Mr. Modi on the national stage.
Mr. Modi remains a controversial figure a decade after the 2002 riots. The U.S. hasn’t allow him entry into the country, although the U.K. recently renewed relations with the Gujarat government after a gap of few years.
Mr. Modi’s background of working for right-wing Hindu organizations also has made many Muslims hesitant to support him.
But his ambitions to be a major player in India’s 2014 national elections hinges on being seen as a man who’s not threatening to India’s minorities.
Over the last several months, through initiatives such as a state-wide tour to promote harmony called “Sadbhavna Yatra” (Goodwill Journey), Mr. Modi has tried to win over more of Gujarat’s Muslims. Whether he has succeeded will be keenly parsed by analysts and political parties, including the BJP, as it could influence his chances of being a serious prime ministerial contender.