Riding on the huge success in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now gearing up for one of its most prestigious electoral battle -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat -- due at the end of this year.
The BJP has ruled the state since 1998, a feat that has helped Modi’s rise to power as the Prime Minister of India.
The duo of BJP president Amit Shah and Modi would want to continue the momentum gained from the historic win in UP where the party won 325 out of 403 MLAs along with its allies.
Not known to sit idle after a win, Shah is already in campaign mode in Gujarat and has launched the BJP's 'Mission 150,' setting a target of winning 150 of the 182 Assembly seats in the state. The party has come up with the 'UP mein 325, Gujarat mein 150' slogan.
Banners and posters with the slogan and photos of Modi and Shah have been put up and pamphlets distributed in the big cities.
The BJP currently has 121 members in the House.
Speculations are rife that the ruling BJP may opt for early Assembly polls in the state – July or September -- to seize the wave in Modi's favour which is evident from the landslide victory in UP polls.
Officially, the BJP has denied the possibility, but some leaders from both the ruling party and the opposition think that it cannot be ruled out, PTI reported.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said the party had a five-year mandate in Gujarat and the government will complete its full term, adding that the election will be held in December.
However, BJP sources indicated that anything is possible in view of the political situation in Gujarat as winning the election in his home state would be crucial for Modi ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Battle for prestige
Gujarat will probably be toughest challenge for Modi and the BJP have faced since 2002. Among the many issues that the BJP faces in Gujarat is a disgruntled Patel community, which had been its most loyal vote base so far.
Led by Patidar leader Hardik Patel, the community virtually held the then Anandiben government hostage over its demand for OBC status in order to avail reservation in jobs and education. The movement, which took a violent turn, seems to have triggered the crucial vote bank slipping away from the BJP’s grip after the government’s treatment in its aftermath.
Hardik Patel, who has become a big challenge for the BJP in the state, has often challenged and questioned the development model of Modi, the biggest selling point of the BJP during 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The members of his outfit, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), have even disrupted BJP meetings including one of Amit Shah last year.
The Patidar movement is not the only challenge the BJP faces as it goes to polls in the western state. A huge Dalit resentment over cow vigilantism incidents has also gripped the state after the incident in Una last year where youth from the community were flogged by upper caste cow vigilantes.
The incident took place in Una town of Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district on July 11 last year, triggering huge protests across the state. The incident sparked a huge political row with opposition parties targeting the ruling BJP with accusations that Dalits were unsafe under its rule.
The incident is said to have played a role in then Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel's resignation.
The Modi factor
The BJP has ruled the state for 19 consecutive years now. However, the departure of Modi from the state and the events that have followed have stepped up a sense of anti-incumbency against the saffron party.
There is absence of a strong state-level leader who could fill the void left by Modi after he left for Delhi. The state has had two Chief Ministers within a period of two years and has no credible face to project as CM.
On the up side, the BJP banking on Modi’s face like it did in UP could even prove beneficial for the party. It’s strategy worked wonders in UP and one cant rule out a similar wave in Gujarat where Modi continues to be very popular.
The message from the UP win and the party’s pick of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister is loud and clear – the BJP is banking on the consolidation of Hindu votes for its poll wins, both in states and in 2019 when it seeks a comeback to power at the Centre.
It is the same pitch – besides the party’s development agenda – that had kept Modi in power in the state for consecutive terms. On the other hand, the absence of any credible opposition in the state has only emboldened the BJP’s chances.
In the first elections that the BJP contested under Modi's leadership in 2002, right after the riots, the saffron party won 127 seats while the Congress won 51. In the next two elections, the BJP won 117 and 115 seats respectively. In 2007 and 2012, Congress secured win at 59 and 61 seats respectively.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party will also be testing its chances in Gujarat this time around. However, given its debacle in Punjab and Goa, the jury is still out on how effective it eventually proves to be in unsettling the ruling BJP.
Still, there are challenges to the BJP’s chances of a return. One of the most prominent being the farmers' resentment over the continuing agrarian distress in the state that the BJP has so far has been unsuccessful in quelling.
To prevent further anti-incumbency, the BJP could declare an early election and opposition parties have already started preparing for it.
Congress, the main opposition party in the state, is expecting early polls and has started preparations accordingly. Party's face in the state and the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Shankersinh Vaghela has said his party is ready as the BJP government may declare an election anytime.
"The process of candidate selection is on and tomorrow, we have called 1,540 aspirants who have filled up forms seeking nomination," said Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
The AAP feels that the BJP may go for early polls to dent the prospects of the Arvind Kejriwal-led party.
"An early election is the game plan of Amit Shah and company. They are scared of us. They think if polls are held early, AAP will not have enough time to prepare," the party's Gujarat in-charge and Delhi minister Gopal Rai said.
Regardless of early polls, the challenge for Modi is more crucial than for the BJP. While fighting elections on his name could prove an advantage, the prospect of a failed mandate could severely dent his image.