By: John Elliott

Televised exit polls on Dec. 15 indicate that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is holding on to power in his home state of Gujarat. Most show the BJP winning in the range of 105-125 seats compared with the 115 it had in the last election in 2012. This is in line with the widely predicted result and would mean that the BJP’s ambitions significantly to increase the 2012 tally have failed.

The polls mostly indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party has won in the range of 65-75 seats, adding five to 15 seats to 2012’s total of 60. If correct, this would mean that Gandhi has managed to have an impact on the votes, though not as significantly as the party had hoped.

This modest Congress success would however have to be set against the polls suggesting that the party faces a devastating defeat in the northern hill state of Himachal Pradesh, with the BJP seizing power for the first time with 47 to 55 seats against Congress’s 13-20. The outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations which will have affected voting.

The votes in both states will be counted on December 18 and, if the exit polls are correctly forecasting clear BJP victories, the results should be known soon after midday. Such polls can of course be wrong because they depend on voters telling the truth when they leave election centers.

Modi flouts election rules

Voting in Gujarat was marred by a controversy over Modi ignoring Election Commission rules by staging a virtual road show after he cast his vote. The prime minister’s critics see this as evidence of his lack of respect for India’s established institutions, though there are also other allegations of less dramatic rule-breaking, including Gandhi taking part in a television interview.

The Election Commission said voter turnout in Gujarat was 68 percent, down from 71.3 percent in 2012. This supports the likelihood of the BJP staying in power because there has not been the surge in voting that usually indicates a desire for a change of government.

For past few weeks, the two leaders of India’s main political parties have been slugging it out in Gujarat as if they were engaged in a national general election campaign. They have both been fighting for their political futures, using the state’s current assembly election as the springboard for India’s next general election in March-April 2019.

The BJP has ruled in Gujarat for 22 years and Modi was a widely-praised chief minister from 2001 to 2014. His aim has been to show that his populist vote-pulling power remains strong enough for the party to achieve the considerable feat of being voted back for a sixth term in office.

Gandhi is the other top leader, having gained that ranking this week by being confirmed as Congress president, a post he will formally take over from his mother Sonia Gandhi on December 16. His aim has been to demonstrate that, after years of shirking responsibility and failing to emerge as a political leader, he is now capable of reviving the party’s flagging prospects and propelling it to victory in 2019.

This is despite undoubted widespread dissatisfaction with the current Gujarat state government, which has failed to perform well on development and social issues under two chief ministers since Modi moved to Delhi in 2014. After 22 years, many voters believe it is time for a change, but will not abandon Modi.

Demonetization and GST

It is also despite the fact that there is anger in some areas about Modi’s controversial policies of demonetization last November, when he cancelled 86 percent of bank notes overnight, and a new sales tax (GST) that he introduced in July as a breakthrough equivalent only to India’s declaration  of independence from Britain in 1947.

Both were badly implemented.  Across the country, they have seriously disrupted traders’ and other small businesses’ traditionally informal cash-based and tax-free transactions. In Gujarat, there is widespread resentment, especially in the western city of Surat, which is a diamond and textile center, and in Saurashtra, where the BJP is believed to have done badly in the first phase of voting on Dec. 9.

Local issues have played little part in the election campaign, despite Gandhi’s attempts to play up the state government’s failings with a 50-page development-oriented election manifesto. He has tried to highlight issues such as water supply shortages, and secondary and higher education which is predominantly supplied expensively by the private sector.

Gandhi has sometimes got his facts wrong, for instance suggesting that a Tata Motors factory set up with generous state government loans to produce the company’s unsuccessful Nano car was closing – it is producing a successful new model. He has a reputation for failing to master and understand a brief, and this has been evident at various times during the campaign.

Gandhi has however managed for the first time to relate well to vast crowds at rallies, showing humor and sensitivity that has often been missing in the past. Observers say that the Congress party’s organization in the state has also improved considerably and that, for the first time in many years, the party has been making a concerted effort to win. Strangely, that is reported not to have been so earlier when Ahmed Patel, an MP and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, played a leading role in the organization.

Modi and other BJP politicians abandoned his usual focus on vikas (development) as a rallying cry when he realized how dissatisfied the electorate was with the state government’s performance.

He then focused on praising his own record and personally denigrating Gandhi. He also turned to populist gambits, raising the specter of Pakistan (which borders Gujarat) as a threat – something the BJP has often done in past election campaigns when worried about voting intentions.

Pakistan Congress collusion

After former Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended a private dinner given in Delhi last week for a former Pakistan foreign minister, Modi unrealistically alleged that Pakistan was colluding with Congress to bring down the BJP in Gujarat.

He seemed to have no worries about lowering the tone of the political campaign and breaking convention by implicitly denigrating a former prime minister, presumably believing that the line would win the BJP support.

He also mocked Gandhi for suddenly visiting a large number of Hindu temples, which Gandhi had done in order to counter the BJP’s appeal as a Hindu-nationalist party.

If hyperactivity is sometimes a sign of both a desperation to win and a fear of defeat, then Modi’s frenetic saturation of Gujarat with political rallies and speeches must indicate that the BJP was worried about losing more than a handful of seats to Gandhi’s energetic campaign.

In a final publicity flourish, Modi left Ahmedabad yesterday from the city’s Sabarmati River in a seaplane – an aircraft so rarely seen in India that one newspaper carried a description of what it is. Gandhi mocked the flight as a gimmick but, for Gujarat voters, it was probably yet another example of what can be achieved by their former chief minister.

If his populist tactics have worked, Modi will have succeeded in rescuing the BJP from the failings of the state government. What is not so clear is whether Congress is doing well enough for Gandhi to have begun to establish himself as a viable Congress president.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.