Modi faces tough Saurashtra test, but Cong may not gain
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If there is a region that stands between Narendra Modi and his fantasy of a land of only 'Modi manas', it could be Saurashtra, going to polls in the first phase.
It has 48 of Gujarat's 182 seats, and is dominated by Leuva Patels, who have been restive ever since their tallest leader, Keshubhai Patel, was marginalised in Modi's party. Keshubhai's fledgling Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) has put up as many as 177 candidates statewide.
Also, Saurashtra this year saw its first drought since Modi came to power, worsening its chronic water shortage, and creating the ground for anti-incumbency. Saurashtra has looked on with resentment as big-ticket industrial projects like Nano and Maruti have bypassed the region.
In Bhavnagar, Amreli and Rajkot, Modi's larger-than-life persona is visible everywhere, touching voters either through the distribution of state largesse at the Garib Kalyan Mela, the pre-election Vivekananda Yatra, or the more recent 3D sabhas and rallies. What is also visible is that rural Saurashtra is not awed by it.
In 2007, this region had seemed on the brink of rebelling against the BJP, but the results in fact showed slightly improved numbers for the party. Many in Saurashtra say it will be different this time, even as they acknowledge the historical difficulties and voter scepticism that a third force confronts in this two-party state.
Pravin Maniar, an old RSS hand who is openly associated with Keshubhai's GPP, is certain that Saurashtra will fell Modi this time. "And if he cannot be CM again, how will he be PM?"
Maniar has familiar complaints against Modi: he is arrogant, has personalized power, broken and relegated the Sangh. In 2007, he says, the Parivar was angry and had refused to come out in Modi's support. But "this time, they are working to bring him down".
Across the region, there are stories of VHP and BKS cadres lending a hand to the GPP; in Junagadh, the GPP's candidate Lalit Suvagya is a district-level VHP office-bearer. "This (support from the Parivar) is happening at an individual level. I have old relations with the Sangh Parivar," says Keshubhai.
But if Saurashtra does dent the BJP's tally, the key rallying point will be the Leuva Patels.
Naresh Patel, whose non-political organization Khodaldham has been working to unite the region's Leuva Patels, says this election will be different now that "the community's tallest leader has a separate platform." At the same time, he points out that the politically savvy Leuva Patels will not waste their vote. "If other communities' turnout is high, they might vote for the Congress instead of GPP."
In Leuva Patel-dominated Nikkawah village, 32 km out of Rajkot, Keshavjibhai Govindbhai Boghara agrees that the BJP vote will split. In his constituency Kalawad, however, it will not be because of identity politics, but because the sitting BJP MLA failed to deliver. Delimitation has made Kalawad a reserved seat, the MLA has moved elswhere, but "voters will want to punish the BJP", he says.
But according to Boghara, the anti-BJP sentiment will benefit the GPP — because people haven't voted Congress here for 20-22 years. This is a key feature of this election in Saurashtra: the BJP looks like it faces more problems than before, yet its main rival may not be able to reap the gains. The Congress is widely perceived to have chosen candidates well, but it remains hobbled by the weakness of its ground-level organisation.
It is clear that Modi's party faces its toughest test in Saurashtra. What is also clear is that, ironically, its fall may be broken by the Congress.