Gujarati voters consider third decade of BJP rule as Modi looks to prime minister race in 2014

In Gujarat, the state where Mahatma Gandhi — India’s spiritual and intellectual founding father — was born, voters will go to the polls in two rounds on December 13 and 17 to elect a new regional government. 

Since 2001, however, Gujarat’s government has been headed by Narendra Modi (pictured above), the regional leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी), which currently holds 117 out of 182 in the state’s unicameral Legislative Assembly (Vidhan Sabha, ગુજરાત વિધાન સભા). In the previous 2007 elections, Modi’s BJP defeated the Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) by an 11% margin — Congress currently holds 59 seats.

Politics in Gujarat is largely a straightforward contest between India’s two largest national political parties and, as one of India’s most conservative states, it’s long been a for the BJP, which has held a majority in the Legislative Assembly since 1995.

Modi is a longtime veteran of Indian politics, and he is widely thought to harbor national political ambitions, though he’s a relatively polarizing figure within India, and opponents have dismissed him as more hype than substance.

He will be looking to poll at least as well as he did in the previous 2007 elections, when the BJP won 49% of the vote and nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, as a springboard into the 2014 national elections.  Although that contest is still a long ways off,  Modi remains the favorite to run as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in 2014, though he may face intraparty rivals, including former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani.  Congress is expected to run under the candidacy of Rahul Gandhi — the son of Congress’s president Sonia Gandhi and the late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the grandson of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Although the state’s officials won’t start counting votes until December 20, barring a political earthquake, it’s a safe bet that Modi will emerge with a mandate for a fourth consecutive term in office.

In one of the world’s most novel twists on campaigning, he has turned heads by using a three-dimensional hologram avatar of himself to address multiple rallies in Gujarat simultaneously.

Members of the Legislative Assembly are elected from single-member constituencies, although 13 are reserved for scheduled castes and 26 for scheduled tribes (two categories historically disadvantaged peoples in India).

Modi remains a controversial figure in India and abroad (U.S. officials have refused to grant him a visa in the past, for example) because of his government’s response in 2002 to religious riots that resulted after the burning of a train by Muslims led to the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims.  The ensuing riots caused around 1,100 more deaths, mostly Muslims at the hands of angry Hindus in retribution for the train burning.  Modi’s government was blamed for doing little to stop the Hindu-led violence, and Modi’s government was alleged to have implicitly or even directly encouraged the violence.  Earlier this year, in fact, a former state minister was convicted for her role in inciting violence during the 2002 riots.

Although the incident took place a decade ago, it remains the chief blight on his record, and Modi has refused to apologize for any negligence on his government’s part; even in this year’s elections, the 2002 riots have opened Modi to charges of insensitivity over minority rights in Gujarat.

Gujarat, though far from India’s most populous state, is nonetheless home to over 60 million people — it has essentially the same population as the entire nation of Italy.  Whereas India, generally, is about 80% Hindu, Gujarat is 89% Hindu, with 9% of the population Muslim.  Its growth rate typically falls well above the average within India’s economy, and the state is one of the most industrialized parts of India — until 1960, it was part of the same state as Mumbai, and it’s part of Mumbai’s natural economic hinterland.

Under Modi’s tenure as chief minister, the state has grown at a pace of over 8.5% annually, and he’s worked with China, Japan and other countries to attract foreign development to Gujarat, though Modi’s critics argue that the gains have not filtered down to the poorest Gujaratis.

One variable that could complicate Modi’s efforts is a new party founded by his predecessor as chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, who served in 1995 and again from 1998 to 2001.  His new regional Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) may well pull votes away from Modi, although Patel has long sniped at Modi from the sidelines and essentially endorsed Congress in the 2007 regional elections.

Gandhi and current Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh have campaigned in Gujarat this week with the campaign coming to its conclusion with a strong pitch designed to end Modi’s national ambitions well before campaigning begins for the 2014 election, and Singh pulled no punches in attacking Modi’s record on diversity:

Singh said time has come to “liberate” the state from divisive politics and regretted that minorities in Gujarat were feeling “insecure”.

“The time has come to liberate Gujarat from this type of politics and to not let those people come back to power, who have been trying to get votes by dividing our society and country,” Singh said, without naming Chief Minister Narendra Modi, at a rally in the tribal town of Vansada in Navsari district.

Modi struck back today with harsh language, accusing Singh of playing the minority card and reminding Singh of the communal violence in Assam earlier this summer.

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