Will India’s Gujarat vote herald Rahul Gandhi as national leader?

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Pollsters say the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to emerge victorious in Gujarat’s election, however the margin of its victory could be slimmer than expected.

The Hindu nationalist party has been ruling the western state for over two decades. A win in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state is crucial for the BJP, as it would be seen as an endorsement of the party’s economic policies and would give it a much-needed boost for the 2019 general elections.

Indien Eröffnung Staudamm Narmada | Narendra Modi (UNI)

Mod has visited Gujarat some 10 times in the past six months to inaugurate various government projects

For the opposition Congress party, a win, or at least a close runner-up position, would be significant to staging a comeback, not only in the state, but also on the national level.

The state will vote in two phases on December 9 and 14. The election results will be announced on December 18 along with those for the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

Read more: Modi’s BJP wins landslide in India’s most populous state

Recent opinion polls predict the BJP maintaining its lead in the 182-seat state assembly, but political experts are not writing off the Congress party either.

The BJP could win between 91 and 99 assembly seats, whereas the Congress could secure between 70 and 86.

It looks to be a close-run competition and a tight finish. A poll conducted by Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News predicts 43 percent of votes for both parties.

Has Rahul arrived?

Significantly, the popularity of PM Modi has dropped by 18 points from 82 percent in August to 64 percent in November. And Congress’ Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who is likely to succeed his mother Sonia Gandhi as the party chief next week, has seen his popularity increase from 40 percent in August to 57 percent, according to the survey.

Read more: What does the future hold for the Gandhi dynasty?

“During the whole campaign, Rahul has remained unfazed with anything trivial raised by the members of the ruling party. Instead of indulging in knee-jerk reactions on things, Rahul has followed his own strategy, and stuck to his own narrative,” writes Shobhit Sujay in a blog for Zee News.

“Though it is very unlikely that the Congress will gain much in numbers when the results are out, there are no qualms in saying that the BJP has certainly felt the heat of Rahul Gandhi this time.”

The Gujarat state election is one of the most important tests for the BJP before the 2019 general elections. The party’s popularity has been dented by a negative perception about PM Modi’s demonetization scheme and the botched up rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

“The BJP has an advantage [in Gujarat] and it is largely because the Congress party does not have a proper organizational structure in the state. But a relatively bad BJP performance in Gujarat will set up the Congress for next year’s election and usher in Rahul Gandhi as a national leader,” Sudha Pai, a political scientist, told DW.

The BJP is not taking this contest lightly given that it is being fought on the premier’s home turf, where Modi had been thrice elected as chief minister.

The prime minister has visited the state some 10 times in the past six months to take part in various events, including the inauguration of the ambitious Delhi-Mumbai bullet train project, the Narmada dam, and a ferry service linking southern Gujarat and the country’s Saurashtra region.

“As many as 30 ministers are involved in the ruling party’s election campaign in the state. A sign of desperation maybe,” political commentator Zafar Afgha told DW.

Economic woes

The Congress party mounted a formidable electoral campaign in the state with its demands for more jobs and inclusive economic development. The party has made very good use of social media to reach out to the voters.

But the actual reason behind Congress’ resurgence is BJP’s own doing. The farmers in the state are dissatisfied with government policies, with unemployment growing and businesses failing. Attacks on Dalits (lower caste Hindus) have also increased in Gujarat.

Read more: Caste violence in India’s Gujarat puts PM Modi in a fix

The Congress party’s pro-workers and pro-farmers slogans seem to have resonated with a large number of people in Gujarat.

“Our media campaign on platforms like WhatsApp has been a huge success even in the rural areas of the state,” Arjun Modhwadia, a Congress official in Gujarat, told DW.

The BJP, however, has trust in Modi’s charismatic leadership.

“We are aware of the Congress party’s media campaigns but I assure you that the people are not going to be swayed by it. People have immense faith in PM Modi’s abilities and leadership,” said BJP spokesperson G. V. L. Narasimha Rao.