EVEN before the first vote has been cast, the Congress has for all practical purposes lost two seats in Gujarat: the Rajkot Lok Sabha constituency and the Visavadar assembly constituency. In both, the official Congress candidates have pulled out from the fray, making it a virtual walkover for the BJP. With such an early start, the mood in the BJP is naturally upbeat.
However, overconfidence and complacency has set in the BJP ranks. And this could well turn out to be its Achilles heel. If the Congress is divided, the BJP is no better placed, with the hardliners and moderates at loggerheads. The unknown factor, however, remains large-scale sabotage in both the BJP and the Congress and this may produce surprising results. Money and muscle power, of which the RJP and the BJP have no dearth, will also play a crucial role to decide the outcome of both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in the state.
However, the BJP has clearly much to be happy about for now. In Rajkot, a BJP bastion, the Congress has been ditched by it's own nominee, P.G. Kal-aria, who opted instead to be the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) candidate from Porbandar. Again, in Visavadar assembly constituency—where former BJP chief minister and present national party vice-president, Keshubhai Patel is in the fray—the Congress candidate, former MP, Nanji Vekaria, withdrew at the last minute, virtually offering the seat on a platter to the BJP. Though Gujarat is witnessing triangular contests, with Shankersinh Vaghela's RJP very much in the fray, the BJP is perceived to have an edge.
As things stand, the BJP is likely to increase its 1996 Lok Sabha tally of 16 by at least two seats. The other two Congress seats in danger are Sabarkantha and Banaskantha in north Gujarat. The former is held by Nishaben Chaudhary, the second wife of Congress legislature party leader and former chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary. And the latter by former external affairs minister Madhavsinh Solanki.
The BJP's gains would have been even better had it not frittered away two seats—Baroda and Surendranagar—by fielding weak candidates. Baroda was won last time by Youth Congress president Satyajit Gaekwad by a mere 17 votes defeating Jitender Sukhadia of the BJP in a triangular contest. Political pundits had predicted a sure win for the BJP this time, but the party was caught in the moderate-hardliner tug of war. The hardliners won and Jayaben Thakker, vice-president of the state BJP women's wing and former chairman of Gujarat Narmada valley fertiliser company, is the party's candidate. She has little hold in Baroda and may well lose.
The BJP has once again preferred a hard-liner in Surendranagar constituency of Saurashtra—former Ahmedabad mayor Bhavnaben Dave. Her sole credential to confront Sanat Mehta, the formidable Congress nominee and former state minister for finance, is that she was born in the district. Interestingly, the BJP lost the seat to Mehta last time when the hardliners sabotaged the official party nominee Somabhai Patel, a confidant of rebel leader Shankersinh Vaghela.
If Saurashtra is the bastion of the BJP, then central Gujarat is a Congress stronghold which the party is expected to retain this time as well. In south Gujarat, the Congress is likely to win back Bulsar which it lost by a slender margin to the BJP last time. However, the Congress is in danger of losing the nearby Mandvi seat held by Chittubhai Gamit who is facing serious problems. Former Congressman, Sahdev Chaudhary is in the field here as a RJP-supported independent. A split in the Congress vote will be to the advantage of the BJP.
With BJP president L.K. Advani in the fray, Gandhinagar is a key contest. It is expected to be smooth sailing for Advani, although the Congress candidate, former director general of police P.K. Datta, is putting up a spirited fight. The RJP candidate, Chaitanya Shambhu Maharaj, will have some nuisance value but is not expected to upset any BJP calculations.
The presence of the RJP, which is the new factor in the elections, has helped BJP prospects by dividing the anti-saffron votes. The failure of the Congress and the RJP to work out seat adjustments has worked against the Congress and has resulted in making the BJP's task comparatively easy.