Ahmedabad: Voters in Gujarat, especially women, turned a blind eye toward the burning issues of spiralling prices of essential commodities, rising unemployment and woes of Dalits as well as farmers to once again give a thumbs-up to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the second and final phase of the elections to the 323 local self-government institutions but also welcomed smaller parties while throwing the Congress on the junk heap.
After its resounding victory in the February 21 first phase to retain power in all six municipal corporations of the state's major cities, the saffron party, which never fared well in the rural polls, steamrollered the opposition Congress by grabbing all 31 district panchayats, a record 212 of the 231 taluka panchayats and as many as 75 of the 81 town municipalities that went to polls on February 28.
Despite flogging the dead horse of Ram temple and love jihad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party was successful in wooing the gullible electorate in the countryside of his homeland by emerging triumphant in 6,236 out of the 8,470 seats up for grabs—1,378 more than what it won last time in 2015.
Indeed, the results of the local polls-a litmus test for BJP ahead of the 2022 assembly elections-showed that the saffron party, which was strong only in urban areas till the 2017 assembly polls, wields considerable influence now even in rural pockets.
In the absence of charismatic leaders with a gift of the gab and aggressive campaigning or high-voltage publicity, the funds-starved Congress, which has been out of power in the state for the past 25 years, dug its own grave by indulging in nepotism and washing its dirty linen in public during ticket distribution.
The result was that the Grand Old Party, which controlled as many as 42 municipalities, 148 taluka panchayats and 22 district panchayats, could romp home in only four municipalities against BJP's 75, and 34 taluka panchayats against BJP's 212 and drew a blank in the battle of ballots for 31 district panchayats—a shameful performance.
With sons of seven seasoned legislators of the party and kinsmen of the stalwarts also biting the dust at the hustings, it was not surprising that both Gujarat Congress chief Amit Chavda and leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly Paresh Dhanani were sent packing instantly by the high command.
The Congress now faces an uphill task to rebuild the party's organisation and reach out to the voters in Gujarat ahead of next year's assembly elections. The fact that AAP has performed well, the Congress now has an additional problem of tackling Kejriwal's party.
After all, the performance of the Congress in Gujarat has been on the downward slope for the past four years. Not only the strength of the party in the 182-member assembly had watered down from a respectable 77 in 2017 to a shameful 65, thanks to desertions, but, later in the November 2020 byelections, Sonia Gandhi's party gave eight seats to BJP on a platter, also losing two all-important Rajya Sabha seats last year.
In sharp contrast, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Asaduddin Owaisi's All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party stunned BJP by gatecrashing into the rural local bodies with their enviable performances by bagging 46, 17 and six seats, respectively.
AAP, known as a metro-city party, first set Surat's Tapi river on fire by turning up trumps in the diamond city by grabbing 27 seats in its civic body, and replacing the Congress as the main opposition party. In the rural polls, the party triumphed in 42 seats--31 seats in taluka panchayats, nine seats in municipalities and two in district panchayats, though, of course, it had contested 2,097 seats for the 9,000-odd seats that went to polls.
But with those browned off by BJP and the Congress voting for AAP, the new entrant to Gujarat's politics shouted from the rooftops about the local issues and sneaked into Modi's native place Vadnagar with victory in one seat in the taluka panchayat and winning one seat even in Congress stronghold Dhari taluka panchayat, thus registering its presence in the Saurashtra region as well as North and Central Gujarat.
No wonder, with several Congress leaders joining AAP, the party bubbling with confidence has now trained its guns on the assembly polls next year, and even plans to become at least the main opposition party in the House, and has already launched an aggressive membership drive.
AIMIM has also become a force to reckon with in Gujarat's electoral politics with its impressive performance in polls in Muslim-dominated Modasa, Godhra and Bharuch close on the heels of its remarkable show with a seven-seat win in Ahmedabad municipal corporation polls.
Owaisi's party, whose rabble-rousing leaders' whistle-stop tours in these three towns had taken the crowds by storm, floored BJP and the Congress with 17 of its 28 candidates in the fray taking home the gold—nine in Modasa, seven in Godhra and one in Bharuch. But by winning nine seats in Modasa, AIMIM has displaced the eight-seat Congress as the opposition party in the 36-member civic body.
Provocative speeches of Owaisi and other party leaders seem to have cast a spell on voters. They triggered a loud applause when they called upon the Muslims and people of other deprived classes to unite against the ruling BJP, saying his party would counter the saffron party's Hindu nationalism with Indian nationalism with the country's Constitution as his party's guiding book.
The electoral outcome reveals that raising the banner for minority rights and equal opportunities finds resonance among the community cohorts in Muslim pocket boroughs everywhere. The party did well by roping in popular Gujarat High Court advocate-activist Shamshad Pathan, who has always taken up the cudgels for riot-hit Muslims, as its spokesperson, and former Congress legislator Sabir Kabliwala as the chief of its Gujarat unit in the nick of time.
By capturing seven seats in the elections to Ahmedabad municipal corporation, AIMIM has become the first non-Congress opposition party since 1987 to be in the powerful civic board, forcing the top-drawer officials to create a special office for Owaisi's men in the headquarters, along with Congress's 25 corporators and BJP's 159 councillors.
AIMIM's impressive show is a slap on the face of those intellectuals who scoffed at the party for fielding tainted candidates because the 21 candidates fielded in Ahmedabad, indeed, included graduates, lawyers, engineers and high-brow religious scholars as well as those who were in the vanguard of the Shaheen Bagh movement in Ahmedabad.
Again, all the 26 contestants in Godhra, Modasa and Bharuch were also eager-beaver party faithfuls knowing the pulse of the people.