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Battle for the bastion in Gujarat


Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Bhuj on August 28 to inaugurate the Narmada canal that will bring water to parched Kutch from south Gujarat. The state is up for assembly polls in December and at a rally later, surprisingly, he brought up the old bogey of conspiracies to defame Gujarat after the 2002 riots when he was chief minister (2001-14). This was unusual for the PM, a deviation from the script of the past couple of years where he had stopped talking about the past and was focused more on future opportunities for the state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Bhuj on August 28 to inaugurate the Narmada canal that will bring water to parched Kutch from south Gujarat. The state is up for assembly polls in December and at a rally later, surprisingly, he brought up the old bogey of conspiracies to defame Gujarat after the 2002 riots when he was chief minister (2001-14). This was unusual for the PM, a deviation from the script of the past couple of years where he had stopped talking about the past and was focused more on future opportunities for the state.

PM Modi waves to crowds at the Khadi Utsav event as CM Patelwatches; Kejriwal with AAP leaders at a tiranga yatra in Mehsana in June; (Photo: ANI)

The PM’s packed two-day tour also included a roadshow in Bhuj (his fourth in the state since March), the inauguration of the Atal Bridge for pedestrians on the Sabarmati river and joining a Khadi Utsav event where he spun a charkha with 7,500 women artisans from across Gujarat. All this hectic activity, of course, came against the backdrop of two important developments in the state. Barely 10 days before, on August 19, there had been a major overhaul of the state cabinet headed by Chief Minister Bhupendrabhai Patel. Then there was the controversial Independence Day ‘gesture’ from the state government, releasing 11 people convicted of involvement in the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family in the 2002 communal attacks. A BJP source says Modi was in a huddle with state leaders, taking stock of the fallout of the two developments.

On August 19, CM Patel had str­i­pped two of his ministers of important portfolios. Rajendra Trivedi lost revenue while Purnesh Modi had to give up roads and buildings. No offi­cial explanation has been given for the move but a BJP source said glibly that the leadership was in no mood to give the opposition a chance to point fingers when it comes to “inefficiency and shielding culprits” so close to the election. Trivedi, the No. 2 in the cabinet, had a penchant for live telecasting his “raids” on government officials (the buzz is he rubbed too many people the wrong way) while Purnesh Modi is in the dock for shielding a contractor responsible for faulty work on bridges. Both ministers, however, continue to hold a number of less important portfolios.

This isn’t the first time such action has been taken. In March, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had asked the CM to dismiss his personal assistant, Dhrumil Patel. Then, in July, state BJP president C.R. Patil was asked to sack assistant Sudhanshu Mehta after receiving corruption complaints.

Gehlot’s plan for the Gujarat Congress is to highlight the BJP government’s “failures: in health and education

The BJP has had an uninterrupted stint in Gujarat for close to three decades, but the years have taken their toll with anti-incumbency and corruption scandals. They still have many things going for them this election—Modi, whose image shines bright as usual, a strong party organisation, a relatively efficient administration and, most importantly, an opposition Congress which is in a shambles. The last has largely been due to the BJP’s poaching at regular intervals; many senior leaders, including 13 of the Congress’s 77 MLAs, have crossed over in the past four and a half years. Ex-legislator and former AICC member Naresh Raval was the latest to go on August 18.

CM Patel, who has been in the hot seat for less than a year, has tried to establish himself as a man of the people. The election season largesse has included a three per cent hike in dearness allowance for state employees and 1 kg pulses at concessional rates to 7.1 million ration card holders registered under the National Food Security Act in 250 talukas. “We have developed a work culture where people feel less troubled and their issues are resolved at the earliest,” he said in his I-Day address.

Gehlot meets Gujarat Congress leaders; (Photo: Nandan Dave)

As always, on the organisational front, the BJP has set an ambitious target of winning at least 150 seats (one more than the state record set by then CM Madhavsinh Solanki of the Congress in 1985). State president C.R. Patil looked upbeat when he told party workers in Ahmedabad on August 21 that “the BJP is working round the clock to achieve the aim of winning all 182 seats”. With three of the state’s top-rung leaders—Union ministers Amit Shah, Mansukh Mandaviya and Parshottam Rupala—preoccupied in Delhi, the grapevine has it that Patil, who is known as “super CM” because of his influence over Bhupendrabhai, could emerge as the CM candidate if the party breaks its previous record of 127 seats. Patil has ruled out the possibility, though. “Bhupendrabhai will be our CM face,” he says categorically.

Meanwhile, the opposition Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are trying to sell the ‘Rajasthan model’ and ‘Delhi model’ respectively to the voters. The Congress is banking on its 2017 campaign chief, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, to boost its fortunes again. Gehlot is poll in-charge this time too and camped in Gujarat for three days last week (August 18-20). He has had talks with party officials in Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot and Ahmedabad, but the party is holding back on a poll manifesto. An initiative titled ‘Bolo Sarkar’ has been launched, under which Congress workers are expected to hold some 2,000 meetings in rural areas to get people’s suggestions. After a review by the high command, many of the better suggestions could make it to the manifesto, say party sources.

A Gujarat Congress leader says the focus will be on the BJP government’s “failures” on the education and health fronts. Gehlot wants partymen to highlight the Rajasthan government’s plan to introduce a ‘right to health’ bill versus Gujarat’s shoddy handling of the post-Covid situation. Replicating the ‘Chiranjeevi Health Insurance Scheme’ in Gujarat—the scheme provides health cover to every family in Rajasthan—will also be a hot topic during the campaign. “It was very painful to see the condition of Gujarat during the pandemic. Despite being in power for 27 years, the government did nothing to save precious lives,” Gehlot told reporters.

As poll in-charge, Gehlot had got 77 seats for the Congress in 2017, its best performance since 1995. The party had even come up with a catchy poll slogan then, ‘Vikas gando thayo chhe (Development has gone kaput)’, playing on Modi’s favourite ‘vikas’ mantra, but it wasn’t enough to derail the saffron party. The Congress’s slide in the past two years may be too much for even Gehlot to salvage. Many of the party’s big leaders have switched camps and joined the BJP. But Gehlot is still up for a rumble; talking to reporters in Ahmedabad on August 20, he called PM Modi an “ace actor”.

But more than the BJP, the Congress’s worry is that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) might steal their constit­uency. AAP chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is focusing on Saurashtra and the south Gujarat region this time around. He has promised to replicate his “Delhi model” to provide quality government school education in Gujarat. At a town hall in Bhuj on August 16, Kejriwal rolled out a plan for this, which includes opening new government schools, an audit of private schools, freezing the fee structure and making the jobs of contract teachers permanent.

Kejriwal is also trumpeting his signature freebies-with-riders, including 300 free units of electricity a month, monthly unemployment dole of Rs 3,000 to the youth and Rs 1,000 to women above 18. AAP has also got some 1,100 locals on the rolls to spread the party’s message on social media platforms. The Delhi CM has even asked probationary teachers and policemen to campaign covertly for AAP. “The policemen are demanding higher grade pay. Work for us, help bring an AAP government and we’ll get you higher pay,” he said.

Kejriwal’s words are getting a lot of traction which, not surprisingly, has the Congress in some bother. Former Union minister Tushar Chaudhary calls APP the “BJP’s B-team” while ex-state Congress chief Arjun Modhwadia has been telling anyone who will listen that his party had promised free electricity to farmers way back in May. AAP state president Gopal Italia retorts that the Congress should first implement its promises in the states where it rules, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The BJP, for its part, is enjoying the commotion. As a senior state leader says, “If AAP cuts into the Congress votes, it will better our margins.”