Ahmedabad: Over the final stages of the campaign for Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, starting Monday, address at least 30 rallies till voting begins on December 9. He leads an array of top BJP bosses - 26 cabinet ministers, 6 Chief Ministers and a dozen MPs, who will cover different parts of the state, urging it to choose their party to uphold Gujarat "asmita" or honour.
- At least 20 union ministers, 6 Chief Ministers campaign in Gujarat
- Congress says PM has abandoned governance for campaign
- BJP campaign swings into top gear on Sunday with PM leading it
"Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the hot favourite. Crowd at his rallies are almost double what other netas draw," reveals a BJP worker in Ahmedabad who helps plan trips for top leaders and star campaigners like Vasundhara Raje, the Chief Minister of neighbouring Rajasthan; and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
It is this prioritizing of the Gujarat election over governance that has led to the opposition attacking the government for delaying the winter session of parliament, which normally begins mid-November. Today, the schedule for the final meeting of parliament this year was announced - December 15 to January 5. BJP leaders like Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have said it's hardly anomalous for parliament sessions to be pushed back to accommodate elections.
Undeterred, the Congress says that Gujarat adds new proof to its claim that the PM is election-obsessed, happy to reassign top ministers to the campaign instead of running the country. "Since Modi saheb has come (into power), the entire cabinet has been converted into a campaign committee headed by the chairman, the PM," said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.
On Sunday, the BJP will launch a mass contact program - "Chai ke saath" - each of Gujarat's nearly 50,000 voting booths will be included as BJP workers and leaders gather with the public, invited to a cup of tea, to listen to PM Modi's regular "Mann Ki Baat" radio address. This is the new iteration of the famous "Chai Pe Charcha" strategy that was so effectively employed by the BJP ahead of the 2014 general election; it highlighted the PM's childhood when he sold tea at railway stations to stress that he is a self-made leader; it also created a sense of "it takes a village" - an inclusive, start-from-scratch, from-the-ground-up approach that contrasted effectively against the Congress, seen as a creaking and outdated organization unable to wean itself off the dynasty of the Gandhis.
The BJP says that if it's carpet-bombing the state with virtually a third of the cabinet, it's because it has a roster that's worth showing off. "We have a galaxy of leaders. The Congress does not have any - and the ones who they do have are being sidelined," said Anil Jain, a top BJP leader handling the campaign in Gujarat.
This bid for Gujarat - which has given the BJP a 22-year run in the state - has turned maximalist for the party because it will be used to measure the Prime Minister's popularity in his home state after the clumsy rollout of the new national sales tax or GST, which has been lauded as a key reform but penalized small traders with its complex structure and rules for filing returns, most of which has now been simplified. In Gujarat, a state full of small and medium-sized businesses, the GST has the potential to create widespread anger.
There's also the fact that three young caste leaders- Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakore - have collated around the Congress, promising that their communities will follow in the election that will be held on December 9 and 14.
The BJP says the Congress' new supporting cast may inject headlines and a little drama into the party's otherwise drab narrative in Gujarat, but will not turn the tide. "First they lost public opinion, then they lost their organization, now they are losing leaders and have hired netas from outside" said the BJP's Anil Jain.
But Hardik Patel, just 24 years old, is a clear and present danger for the BJP, which has for decades been supported by his Patidar community. Hardik Patel is urging them to vote this time for the Congress, which, he says, has promised to include the community in affirmative action policies extended so far to backward castes. The Patidars or Patels form 14% of the population, but their importance to the ruling party is illustrated in the stature accorded to them in the government: nine ministers and a third of the BJP's law-makers are Patels.
The biggest leaders of the BJP will be carefully assigned to counter him in Patel-dominated areas including in Saurashtra.