New Delhi: For more than a decade, politics in Gujarat has been synonymous with Narendra Modi. With the Assembly elections due in a few weeks, the scenario seems to no different. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongman, who has ruled Gujarat with an iron hand since October 2001, has swatted all opposition with such ruthlessness that today there is no virtually no leader in the state capable of challenging him.
Modi has steamrolled the opposition, which is primarily the Congress, to win two back-to-back Assembly elections and 2012 looks no different. According to a pre-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for CNN-IBN, Modi-led BJP is once again set to decimate the Congress and romp home with a thumping majority. The survey interviewed 3658 voters in Gujarat and found that almost 50 per cent of them were in favour of the BJP, while the Congress was way behind with just 36 per cent.
In the 2007 Assembly election, the BJP won 117 seats in the 182-member Assembly with a vote share of 49 per cent, which is likely to see a one percentage point gain in the 2012 poll. The Congress, on the other hand, has slipped two percentage points and will get only 36 per cent of the votes compared to 38 in the 2007 elections. The Gujarat Parivartan Party of Keshubhai Patel, a former BJP leader and Gujarat chief minister, is set to get a paltry three per cent of votes. Keshubhai Patel's party did not exist during the 2007 election. Other smaller parties will grab the remaining 11 per cent, down from 13 per cent five years ago.
In a two-cornered contest, a difference of 14 per cent in vote shares means that the race has been decided even before it started. And in Gujarat it is Modi all the way despite the conviction and sentencing of one of his former ministers in a 2002 riots case and the arrest of another in a fake encounter case.
The survey reveals that even though his close aides are feeling the heat of the law-enforcing agencies and the judiciary, Modi has consolidated his position as the Numero Uno in the state while the Congress has slipped, failing to counter an increasingly aggressive Gujarat chief minister.
Modi is helped in his mission to score a hat-trick of victories by the strong pro-incumbency sentiment, which is even greater than it was five years ago. The CSDS survey shows that 52 per cent of the voters are in favour of giving the BJP another chance to form the government, up from 48 during the 2007 poll. Modi's personal popularity is also intact with nearly half the respondents - 49 per cent - backing him for the Chief Minister's post. None of his rivals is even in the double digits when it comes to the chief ministership stakes.
In fact, the one big message from the survey is that Modi's popularity is at an all-time high. In 2002 when Modi helped BJP back to power in the backdrop of state-wide riots, only 37 per cent of the voters wanted him as the chief minister. But since then - barring 2004, when his popularity fell to 31 per cent - he has consolidated his position; in 2012, there is no leader who comes anywhere close to him.
A major factor behind Modi's rising graph is that the state under his stewardship has made rapid economic progress, and all the economic indicators are healthy. A majority of the voters credit the BJP for Gujarat's development, and even most non-BJP and non-Congress voters believe that Modi's rule has been development-oriented. The only blemish in his track record is that the condition of farmers and employment generation has been rated negatively by those surveyed.
Meanwhile, in a double whammy for the Congress, most Gujarat voters blame the Congress-led UPA government and not Modi’s regime for rising prices. On the issue of corruption, both the UPA and the state government are viewed as being guilty, but here too the Centre is the bigger villain. The satisfaction with Modi's performance as the chief minister is also higher than the satisfaction with Manmohan Singh's performance as the prime minister.
Sure, Modi fails to score higher than Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Madhya Pradesh's Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh and Odisha's Naveen Patnaik when it comes to the state governments' performance satisfaction. But still, his following is so huge that even though 43 per cent of the voters give a thumbs down to his style of speaking and campaigning, claiming that these are not consistent with Gujarat's culture, a huge majority of 67 per cent believe that the state’s honour and prestige has increased because of him.
The 2002 riots, which are still used by his opponents to target Modi, too, are no longer a major issue for most of the electorate. The majority among both Hindus and Muslims want to forget the 2002 riots. The desire to see riots' guilty punished is much less today than it was 10 years ago, both among Hindus and Muslims. While in 2002, 85 per cent of the Hindus wanted those found guilty of 2002 riots punished, the number has plummeted to dropped in 2012. What is more striking is that only 51 per cent of the Muslims now want the riot-guilty to be punished, down from 95 in 2002.
But one disturbing finding of the survey is that both Hindus and Muslims are not as optimistic about communal peace as they were five years ago, with a smaller 55 per cent believing that 2002 type riots can never happen again, compared to 69 per cent Hindus and 80 per cent Muslims in 2007. A majority of those surveyed also want Modi to apologise for the 2002 riots.
A look at the regional patterns shows that the BJP is well ahead of the Congress in all the regions of the state. In Saurashtra and Kutch (Kutch, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Porbandar, Amreli, Junagadh and Bhavnagar districts) which account for 54 seats, the party is ahead of the Congress while Keshubhai's party is influential in only some seats.
North Gujarat (53 seats in the districts of Banaskantha, Patan, Mehsana, Sabarkantha, Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad) and South Gujarat (35 seats in the districts of Narmada, Bharuch, Surat, Dangs, Navsari and Valsad) are firmly in BJP's grasp and the Congress is able to challenge the party only in Central Gujarat that has 40 seats in Kheda, Ananad, Panchmahals, Dahod and Vadodara districts. But in Central Gujarat, too, the BJP is ahead of the Congress.
So while the results of the two-phase election will be known only on December 20, the Modi engine is powering ahead the BJP even as the Congress desperately tries to play catch up.