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It is in no small part due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah that Gujarat wields a disproportionately high influence on national politics. The so-called Gujarat model of development was an important part of the BJP’s campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. To say that the Gujarat Assembly election of 2012 had a huge bearing on the parliamentary election that followed in less than two years will be no exaggeration. For the same reasons, Gujarat 2017 carries an additional layer of importance: whether for the Congress or the BJP, a win or a loss will cast a much longer shadow until the summer of 2019. The two-phase polls on December 9 and 14 will thus be keenly fought, with the BJP seeking a sixth straight win, and the Congress trying for a breakthrough against all odds. The timing of the announcement of the election schedule itself became a controversy, as Chief Election Commissioner A.K. Joti faced criticism for delaying it till after Mr. Modi had made two more visits to Gujarat to inaugurate projects and announce new schemes. The argument that flood relief work in the State would have been affected if the schedule had been announced along with that of the election in Himachal Pradesh, which is ruled by the Congress, was not very convincing. One, relief work had been mostly completed, and two, the Model Code of Conduct would not have stood in the way of such works.
However, when the votes are counted, what would have mattered is not the two-week delay in the announcement, but the BJP’s performance over the last five years. Also the Congress’s ability to offer a viable alternative. On the debit side of the political ledger for the BJP, Mr. Modi is not the chief ministerial candidate in Gujarat and may not be able to cash in on his charisma the way he did in previous elections. The three years since Mr. Modi moved to the Centre have not been the best for Gujarat in terms of governance. The BJP had to replace Anandiben Patel, who succeeded Mr. Modi as Chief Minister, with Vijay Rupani in order to infuse more life into the administration. But the Congress does not seem to be well-placed to press the advantage. It is reduced to seeking the support of leaders of caste groups to make a dent in the BJP’s vote bank. The wooing of the Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, and the induction of Alpesh Thakor, a leader of a backward classes grouping, into the Congress might have brought an accretion to its vote bank, but the party will not get far by artificially yoking together leaders with support bases locked in social conflict. These youthful leaders in the company of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will need much more in common than a desire to vote the BJP out. Without presenting a cohesive programme, this nascent, loose alliance will have no game-changing impact.