Arvind Kejriwal addresses the public meeting for the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections. Photo: ANI
Ahmedabad: Long caught between two polarities, Gujarat's electoral field has expanded to include a third party with the Aam Aadmi Party challenging the ruling BJP as well as the opposition Congress that has lost ground but still has significant presence.
Elections to the 182-member state assembly will take place over two phases on December 1 and 5, the Election Commission announced on Thursday in the backdrop of the Morbi bridge collapse four days ago. As campaign knives get sharpened, the October 30 tragedy in which 135 people lost their lives could find emotive resonance.
Besides, the freebie versus welfarism debate - over which challenger AAP and BJP have been sparring over the last several weeks -- and the ruling party's main poll planks of Hindutva, 'double engine' growth' and continuity in governance are likely to remain centrestage.
Though elections were announced today, the buzz for what will be a three-cornered contest has been getting steadily louder over the last few weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several Union ministers have been making frequent visits to the state. Modi was in Morbi on November 1 to review the situation. And all eyes are on AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal as well as his party leaders who have made a high decibel entry into the field, giving voters a third option in a state that has for decades been bipolar in its politics.
The elections are crucial for BJP, which has won six successive terms and aims at retaining power in Modi's home state, as well as for AAP, hoping desperately that a win in Gujarat will propel it to a pan-India political force, the third state in its bag after Delhi and a victory in Punjab in March this year.
The Congress, on its part, hopes to end its 27-year stint in the Opposition but has so far been quiet with its national leaders conspicuous by their absence.
The BJP has 111 seats and the Congress 62 in the current assembly. The NCP has one, BTP two, Independent one and five seats are vacant, including three after Congress MLAs resigned.
With leaders of various parties making a beeline for the state, much before the announcement of the elections, and parties firming up their strategies, cities and villages of Gujarat are dotted with advertisement banners and posters of political parties.
Modi, the BJP's star campaigner, has increased the frequency of his trips to Gujarat and addressed well-attended gatherings in different parts of the state in the last few weeks.
Several Union ministers and party leaders fanned out across the state during the nearly 10-day Gujarat Gaurav Yatras launched by BJP president J P Nadda and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Six yatras in different parts of the states were launched on October 12 and 13.
Modi's events have been marked by announcements of development projects with a promise of more. During his visit on October 19 and 20 to Gandhinagar, Junagadh, Rajkot, Kevadia and Vyara. he inaugurated and laid the foundation stones of projects worth Rs 15,670 crore.
His speeches dwell on the BJP government's contribution to the development of Gujarat in the last 20 to 25 years. He has also been stressing on the "Narendra-Bhupendra" (Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel) “double engine” combo for fast paced development.
Apart from state government-sponsored programmes, Modi has also been participating in rallies organised by the BJP.
However, it is the third and late entry into Gujarat's electoral field, the Kejriwal-led AAP, that is stirring interest with its aggressive campaigning and long list of attractive pre-poll "guarantees".
The AAP is banking on “welfarism”, the fact that it is a new alternative and its stress on day to day people issues to woo voters.
Kejriwal has anchored his party's campaign around a slew of sops, including 300 units of free electricity per month, free education in government schools, unemployment dole, Rs 1,000 allowance to women and monthly stipend to new lawyers.
While Kejriwal has been leading his party's campaign with multiple rallies and townhall meetings, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Raghav Chadha, too, have visited the state multiple times.
The party began campaigning much ahead of the BJP and other parties. The 10-year-old outfit has also left other parties far behind as far as announcement of candidates are concerned. So far, the AAP, which is likely to contest all 182 seats, has announced names of candidates for 73 Assembly segments.
The Congress is the unusually quiet, almost absent, party in the fray. Former party president Rahul Gandhi, busy with his Bharat Jodo Yatra that started on September 7 and will go on for nearly five months, has remained mostly absent.
It is not yet clear whether the Lok Sabha MP from Kerala will join the opposition party's campaigning. He last addressed a rally of party workers in Ahmedabad on September 5.
The party has presented before Gujarat voters achievements made by its government in neighbouring Rajasthan. The main poll planks of the Congress are inflation, unemployment, social harmony and anti-incumbency against the BJP.
In the absence of any national leaders so far, the party's Gujarat in-charge Raghu Sharma has been frequenting the state and leading its campaign.
State Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said the party's poll campaign is going on in full swing and candidates will be declared soon.
Some smaller parties are also in the fray. Though earlier regional parties formed by prominent leaders such as Chimanbhai Patel, Shankarsinh Vaghela and Keshubhai Patel contested polls, they failed to make a mark with the state's electoral politics centred around the BJP and the Congress.
This time, Lok Sabha MP Asadudin Owaisi's AIMIM (All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen) has announced candidates in some minority-dominated seats and is likely to field more nominees.
The Congress won the first three Assembly elections in 1962, 1967 and 1972 in Gujarat. In the elections fought after imposition of Emergency in 1975, it lost to an alliance of parties led by Morarji Desai, the Jan Sangh and rebel Congress leader Chimanbhai Patel's Kimlop party.
Two subsequent elections in 1980 and 1985 were won by the Congress. In 1990, the Janata Dal and the BJP emerged as dominant forces. The BJP has won every Assembly elections from 1995 onwards. It has been in power since, except for a brief period from 1996 to 1998 when its leader Shankarsinh Vaghela rebelled and formed a government with the Congress support. PTI