Ahmedabad: Gujarat's two-phase polling begins on Thursday in what is widely seen as a battle between a sanguine Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the Congress, the outcome sure to cast a national shadow.
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are supremely confident of retaining power in Gujarat where the Congress has been struggling to stay alive for almost two decades.
In the first phase on Thursday, balloting will take place in 87 of the 182 assembly constituencies. The BJP is contesting all 87 seats followed by the Congress (84), the Gujarat Parivartan Party of former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel (83) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (79). There are 383 independent candidates in the fray.
Thursday's electorate totals 38 million, including 19 million men; there are 44,579 polling centers. "The mood of the people of Gujarat is the same as in 2007. People are enthusiastic to vote for the BJP. We will get a two-third majority," BJP MP Haren Pathak said.
Congress secretary Ashok Tanwar, who oversees Gujarat polls, doesn't share the views. "People's expectations are our expectations, and the people of Gujarat are expecting the Congress to form a government this time," he said.
While Pathak claimed that "development in all aspects and in every corner of the state" will boost the BJP's prospects, Tanwar said that Modi's failure on the socio-welfare front will cost the ruling party.
Ahead of the start of the state battle, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi flew to Gujarat and targeted Modi's "misrule".
On Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi said whatever success story Gujarat had was due to its people, not Modi. The 62-year-old Modi, whom his fans say is a virtual one-man army in BJP, has been disdainful of the Congress while addressing election rallies. But while the Congress is an old enemy, Modi this time faces a new threat -- friends-turned-foes. These include Keshubhai Patel, who has still not got over the fact that he had to make way for Modi as Chief Minister in 2001, and still vocal Hindutva stars such as Praveen Togadia.
The newly-formed Gujarat Parivartan Party of Keshubhai Patel and former minister Gordhan Zadaphia are hoping to dent the BJP's support base, particularly among the influential Leova Patel community.
A BJP victory is sure to elevate Modi to the status of an unbeatable winner, particularly when the BJP is in a crisis following varying allegations against its president, Nitin Gadkari. It could also catapult him -- his denials notwithstanding -- to a national role ahead of the Lok Sabha elections due in 2014 but which many feel could take place earlier.
A Modi defeat will add to BJP's woes -- in Gujarat and nationally. Modi earned the distinction of being the most hardliner among all BJP politicians ever since Gujarat burned for weeks soon after he became Chief Minister following a training burning at Godhra in February 2002.The death of 58 Hindu activists in the train triggered horrific communal violence across Gujarat leaving some 1,000 people dead.
The discourse in this election has mostly been about development and corruption, with Modi claiming credit for putting Gujarat on the country's industrial map.
The Congress suffered a blow when one of its best known leaders, Narhari Amin, joined the BJP after accusing the Congress national leadership of giving election tickets to the undeserving.
Narendra Modi, who is eyeing third consecutive term at the helm in Gujarat, is contesting from Ahmedabad’s Maninagar seat which will go to poll on December 17. In 2007, he defeated the Congress candidate Dinsha Patel by around 75,000 votes. This time, the Congress has fielded suspended IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife Shweta Bhatt from Maninagar.
In the end though, the Gujarat election could decide the future of Modi and Indian politics.
The second and last phase of the assembly polls will take place on December 17. Counting of votes is slated for December 20.