Stakes high for parties in Gujarat and Himachal polls

While the BJP and the Congress seem to be locked in a direct fight in Himachal, it is a three-cornered contest in Gujarat, where AAP is desperate to make its maiden foray.  A win here would give wings to the party founder Kejriwal’s national dreams, writes Amit agnihotri

The BJP is upbeat over its recent 4 out of 7 assembly by-poll wins in six states but whether the saffron party would be able to retain power in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh or not will be known on December 8 when the results will be out.

Himachal Pradesh had polls for 68 seats on November 12 while Gujarat will have polling for 182 seats on December 1 and 5.

Out of the two, Gujarat is the high-stakes battle for PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who belong to the western state and are therefore investing huge energy and resources to save the government of chief minister Bhupendra Patel.

Interestingly, Bhupendra Patel replaced Vijay Rupani last year when the BJP top leadership not only changed the chief minister but an entire cabinet to beat anti-incumbency.

The Congress, which has been out of power in Gujarat for the past 27 years, is hoping for a change in 2022.

The grand old party has said that the last year’s change of guard and the number of days that PM Modi was spending in the western state was an indicator that the going was indeed tough for the ruling party.

Though traditionally the Gujarat battle has been between the Congress and the BJP, this time the AAP has also entered the fray, making it a three-cornered contest.

Both the Congress and the BJP say the AAP has no presence in Gujarat but internally both are concerned over the potential damage the new party can do to their vote banks.

The Congress has debunked the views of many poll watchers who say the AAP appeals to the same voter segments as the grand old party and will therefore harm it more. In Congress view, the AAP has no organization, is allegedly operating through paid workers and is likely to dent the BJP more in the cities.

The same is the story in Himachal Pradesh, the only difference being that while the AAP seems to be spending more energy and resources in Gujarat, it is not seen much in the hill state.

Focus on 2024

The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly polls are important for the parties for various reasons. The elections are a battle of prestige for the PM in his home state Gujarat and if the BJP loses there it will give a negative signal and might have an impact on the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

For the Congress which has been out of power in Gujarat for 27 years, another win will further demoralise the cadre while a win will give it  a fresh lease of life and may help the grand old party in the various assembly elections ahead of the 2024 national polls.

The AAP is desperate to make an entry in Gujarat as it would push the national dreams of the party founder Kejriwal, who is projecting the 2024 elections between him and PM Modi. An entry in Gujarat would also help the AAP project that it is a replacement of the grand old party against the BJP nationally.

Star campaigners

In both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is banking on the appeal of PM Modi, the Congress is hoping the voters will opt for change and give it a chance while the AAP is trying to get a foothold and expand its presence beyond Delhi and Punjab.

In both the states, PM Modi is campaigning hard for the BJP, along with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party chief JP Nadda.

From the Congress side, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is leading the Himachal Pradesh campaign and did four rallies along with Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. Rajasthan leader Sachin Pilot and the senior state leaders also campaigned in the hill state while in Gujarat, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot addressed several rallies to seek votes for the grand old party along with the state leaders.

Rahul Gandhi skipped the campaign in Himachal as he is busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra but may address a rally in Gujarat. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge addressed a rally in Shimla rural on Nov 9 and released the Gujarat manifesto on Nov 12.

So far, the grand old party has played its cards well and has not allowed the polls to get polarised. The party has run a silent campaign while strengthening its booth-level teams and conducting door to door voter outreach.

The Congress also launched six Parivartan Sankalp yatras to cover around 168 out of 182 assembly seats across Gujarat during which the party addressed around 165 rallies.

In 2017, the Congress had won 77 seats and had come close to the halfway mark of 92 in the 182 member Gujarat assembly. The BJP had won 99. The Congress has lost 14 MLA since then. Yet, the grand old party claims it will outperform the saffron party this time.

From the AAP side, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia are active in Gujarat. They had spent some time in Himachal initially.

The issues

The Congress is wooing the Gujarat voters with 10 guarantees like free treatment up to Rs 10 lakh, farm loan waiver up to Rs 3 lakh, Rs 5 per litre subsidy to milk-cooperatives, Rs 4 lakh assistance to 3 lakh families of Covid victims, strict anti-corruption laws and scrutiny of corruption over past 27 years, including jail to guilty, hiring for 5 lakh government jobs and ending contract system within one year of getting elected, additional 5 lakh jobs in 2 year and 10 lakh jobs by 2024, with 5 lakh jobs reserved for women and an unemployment allowance of Rs 2000 per head for the youth.

The Congress has brought out a charge sheet against the state government in Gujarat and has alleged corruption behind the leak of several exam papers in the western state and in the land takeover of the forest dwellers.

Over the past weeks, the Congress top leadership questioned the state government over the “unconstitutional” release of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and the murder of seven members of her family in the 2002 riots, and the recent Morbi bridge collapse in which 135 persons were killed, saying the tragedy took place due to corruption involved in repairing the bridge.

In the 2017 Himachal Pradesh polls, the BJP won 44 out of the total 68 seats while the Congress got 21 seats. In the 2022 polls, the Congress is banking on the legacy of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh and has named his wife Pratibha Singh as the state unit chief.

But the party has been careful in not projecting a chief ministerial face and is rather projecting the collective leadership of Pratibha Singh, CLP leader Mukesh Agnihotri and campaign chief Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.

Like Gujarat, the grand old party is suffering from infighting in the Himachal unit also and lost several leaders to the BJP over the past weeks.

To take on the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress promises include revival of the old pension scheme, free power up to 300 units, 5 lakh jobs, Rs 1500 allowance per woman, Rs 680 crore startup fund, mobile clinics, English-medium schools besides fair prices for fruit growers, buying 10 liter of milk per day from cattle owners and purchasing cow dung from them at Rs 2 per kg.

AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal has also announced free and quality education for all students in Gujarat government schools, to improve infrastructure of existing government schools and set up a large number of new schools.

In Himachal Pradesh, Kejriwal has promised Rs 1,000 per month to every woman aged above 18 years, free and quality education to every child, free healthcare services to everyone and Rs 1 crore to the kin of soldiers from the state who laid down their lives in the line of duty.

PM Modi announced several key central projects in the two states to make an impact in the two states. He said a BJP government at the Centre and in the state would work like a double engine to push development.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra countered this by saying that the BJP had failed to provide fuel to the double engine government which had become a trouble engine.

EC role

The Congress targeted the Election Commission for delaying the poll dates for Gujarat saying the constitutional body should explain the move. According to AICC in charge of Gujarat, Raghu Sharma, “the EC should explain this delay as it is a constitutional body. The results of both the states will come on December 8 but the Himachal Pradesh poll dates were announced on October 14 and that of Gujarat on November 3.”

He also said that while the notification for Himachal polls came on Oct 14, the poll code was applicable from Oct 17 as PM Modi had to do a rally on October 16. The Gujarat poll dates were delayed due to similar reasons, he said.