As the battle for Gujarat kicked off, the turnout in the first phase of polling on Saturday stood at 68 per cent, falling a few pegs short of 71 per cent polling percentage in the last Assembly polls in 2012.
The crucial state elections, seen to be a prestige battle for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home state and a litmus test for soon-to-be president of Congress Rahul Gandhi, will also be a ground test for the much-touted Hardik Patel or the Patidar factor on which the Congress is banking heavily to wrest power from the ruling BJP after 22 years.
Out of the total 182 seats, 89 went to polls in the first phase. Some prominent candidates in the fray are chief minister Vijay Rupani (Rajkot West), Congress’ Shaktisinh Gohil (Mandvi) and Paresh Dhanani (Amreli). The rest 93 seats will go to polls on December 14 and results will be declared on December 18.
The election was peaceful, barring some incidents of skirmishes, while around 100 complaints of EVM malfunctioning were received.
Out of the 89 seats of Saurashtra, South Gujarat and Kutch which went to polls in the first phase, at least 60 are dominated by the Patidar community, which has since the 2015 quota agitation, turned against the BJP.
Election Commission data showed that constituencies dominated by Patels like Morbi, Ankleshwar, Surat, Botad and Navsari saw a high turnout of nearly 75 per cent. While this could be an indication of electoral manifestation of the Patidar community’s anger against the ruling BJP, a similar revolt by BJP veteran Keshubhai Patel in 2012 had turned out to be a damp squib. Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party had bagged merely two seats in Saurashtra, while the BJP had romped home with 33 and the Congress got 13.
This time, however, young Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who led the demand for reservation for his community, has openly declared his support for the Congress.
The Congress in these polls has banked heavily on the troika of angry young men — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani, the leaders of Patidars, OBCs and Dalits respectively.
The BJP has, however, said that the alliance between the OBCs and the Patels is self-defeating as the two communities would be competing for quota benefits.
Exuding confidence after the end of voting, Union finance minister and the BJP’s in-charge for Gujarat Arun Jaitley told reporters in Ahmedabad that the ruling party will register a “landslide victory”.
“The BJP estimates that we will not only get a comfortable but a landslide win. In most places people of all sections have supported the BJP,” he said.
The battle for Gujarat has seen some acrimonious exchanges between the BJP and the Congress over alleged personal attacks on Mr Modi and questions were asked on the religion followed by Mr Gandhi.
The Opposition has also alleged that there was EVM malfunctioning and tampering in some constituencies. However, the EC dismissed these reports and claimed that faulty EVMs were replaced promptly while 100 per cent Voter Verifiable Paper Trail machines were used in 24,600 polling booths.
The outcome of Saturday’s voting will reflect the impact of demonetization and the “hasty” implementation of the Goods and Services Tax which has hurt trading hubs like Surat badly.