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Can Rahul Gandhi's revival derail India's pro-Hindu BJP party?

December election in Gujarat state a litmus test for policies of Modi's government
Can Rahul Gandhi's revival derail India's pro-Hindu BJP party?

Vice President of the Indian National Congress party Rahul Gandhi, center, poses for a picture while holding a traditional umbrella during the 'Navsarjan Gujarat Janadesh' rally in Gandhinagar, some 30 kilometers from Ahmedabad on Oct. 23. (Photo by AFP)

Published: November 16, 2017 05:51 AM GMT
Updated: November 16, 2017 05:53 AM GMT

Nervousness is apparent in the ranks of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it braces for a crucial state election in the Gujarat state in December.

The unease in the ranks of the BJP, which is seen as the party of choice for Hindu nationalists, stems from a feeling that its leader, Prime Minster Narendra Modi, may be losing his luster to rival Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi.

Recent BJP campaigning is telling, said Congress general secretary Mohan Prakash. In Gujarat, a state considered to be Modi's stronghold and from which his political career was launched, the star campaigner is not the prime minister but another younger leader Yogi Adityanath. Other BJP national heavyweights have also taken to the Gujarat campaign trail, such as the finance minister.

"Does it mean Modi is no longer the best vote catcher in Gujarat?" Prakash asked.

The December poll, although only a state election, is a litmus test for BJP who won the federal government in a national landslide in 2014.

A defeat, or even a poor performance, in Gujarat will be hard for BJP to swallow. The party has been in power in the state since 1995, winning three consecutive elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012. Ever since Modi took over the leadership in Gujarat in 2001, the party has never lost a state election.

In the 2012 election BJP won 116 of the 182 seats, limiting Gandhi's Congress to only 60. Three other parties and an independent candidate won the remaining six seats.

This time, one leading opinion poll predicts BJP will easily hold its advantage, winning 118-134 seats. Congress, which has been out of power in the state for 22 years, might secure 49-61 seats, according to The Times of India poll published Oct. 25.

The Gujarat election will help indicate how popular Modi's two major policies — the withdrawal of high-value bank notes and a new taxation system — have proved with voters, said G. V. Anshuman Rao, a socio-political analyst based in the southern city of Hyderabad.

Several factors are in favor of Congress, analysts have said. A backlash against the incumbents, popular anger over Modi's inability to deliver on his promises and growing discontent of lower-caste people with the high-caste dominated BJP, are all said to be working in favor of Gandhi's party.

However, Congress in Gujarat lacks BJP's political machinery and networking at the grassroots level.

Irrespective of the December result, the Gujarat election appears to have revived the Congress party. It has brought out leadership qualities in Gandhi, and the party's vice president has shown a new willingness to take on Modi and his pro-Hindu party at the national level.

Since his introduction into politics in 2003, Gandhi's political star has dimmed. He delivered confused speeches, mumbled in media interviews, sat shyly at political meetings and took a long leave from parliament in 2015 "for personal reasons" without telling his party leaders.

Political pundits like Pankaj Vorha have said Gandhi is now being coached by an experienced team of advisers to help him resurrect his own image as well as that of his party.

Even his detractors agree that Gandhi is now displaying proper leadership qualities.

"Three to four years ago, Rahul Gandhi was a pushover. Everybody could ignore him in the political arena. But now Congress seems to have discovered a genuine leader in him," said Sanjay Raut, a leader of the hard-line Hindu Shiv Sena party.

Leaders like Raut, whose party is part of Modi's federal coalition, have grown doubtful about Prime Minister Modi's performance.

Of course, BJP leaders disagree with the negative assessment.

"On the contrary, Modi is the biggest leader … on a scale of 10, Modi gets a 10 and his competitors get 2 or 3. Be it Rahul or anyone else, the choice is yours," says Viren Sachdeva, a BJP leader in New Delhi.

But anger against BJP is palpable on social media where people complain that Modi has taken Indians for granted over the past three years. Media commentators now discuss how Modi ignored his election promises to provide more jobs, end corruption and accelerate economic growth and development.

In the three years since Modi came to power the Indian economy has performed reasonably well according to key government economic indicators. For instance, GDP has hovered just over 7 percent annually, even though the government changed the way it is calculated in January, 2015, with the rate above that of China's.

But this is balanced against weak domestic demand, no real improvement in infrastructure, state bank indebtedness and virtually non-existent job growth since 2014.

Critics have also questioned whether government money is being allocated in the right places. In late October, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a $32 billion recapitalization plan for state lenders over the next two years to help resolve their bad loans, a long-standing problem that has threatened to bring down the country's banking system.

The effective writing off of bad debts comes at a time when struggling farmers are calling for financial relief. On average, 12,000 farmers have committed suicide every year since 2013, to escape spiraling debt due to farm failures.

Jaitley took a pot shot at Congress on Nov. 4 at a press conference, saying they were making a "suicidal" and "dangerous" move by dividing Gujarat.

"The Congress party is adopting wrong methods to fight the election and ... using anti-national tactics which are harmful for the progress of the nation. Their corrupt approach to winning the elections is very dangerous for the progress of the state and the nation in general," said Jaitley.

Gandhi hit back at Modi on Nov. 6 over the poor state of the Indian economy, saying he would wait to see the day when Chinese youth use mobile phones made in India to take selfies. He also promised an overhaul of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which took affect on July 1, if Congress returns to power in 2019.

At the rally in Himachal Pradesh, Gandhi blamed the prime minister for "squeezing employment opportunities" in the country and asked "where are the two crore (20 million) annual jobs, promised by the BJP in 2014?"

Congress leaders know how hard the job ahead job is. Gandhi is attracting thousands at political rallies and millions on Twitter but "that is no guarantee for votes," said Ilyas Quershi, a Congress office bearer in Ahmedabad. "We are working hard. We have to work harder till the end."

Analyst Rao agreed the hype alone won't secure Congress victory.

"Even before the first ball is bowled, several Congress leaders are giving the indication that the war in Modi's own turf — Gujarat — is already half-won. That is not a good trend," said Rao, using a cricket analogy.

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