India's Ruling Party Faces Poll Challenge on Modi's Home Turf

  • Elections to India’s Gujarat will be held on December 9, 14
  • BJP looks set to retain power, buffered by a weak oppostion

Narendra Modi

Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party faces another challenge to retain power in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat in polls later this year in what would be a referendum on its policies including demonetization and the national sales tax.

The BJP is throwing all its resources into Gujarat to ensure the party performs well after ruling the state for 19 years. A loss -- or a poor result -- could set off a chain reaction and hamper Modi’s efforts to retain power in 2019.

Voting will be held in two phases on Dec. 9 and Dec. 14, while votes counting will take place on Dec. 18, along with another state Himachal Pradesh, A. K. Joti, chief election commissioner, announced in a press conference on Wednesday in New Delhi.

The elections are taking place at a time when Modi is facing discontent over his economic policies as growth slows, job losses mount, social unrest rises and traders suffer following his November move of note ban and the newly-introduced nationwide sales tax.

"Anti-incumbency and eroding credibility of the prime minister are two major factors that seem to be negatively impacting the BJP’s winning chances in Gujarat," said Satish Misra, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, adding that Modi’s frequent visits to the state suggests BJP’s desperation.

Easy Win

Despite the challenges, the BJP is likely to score an easy win in Gujarat, a survey by India Today-Axis predicted Tuesday. The party may also win Himachal Pradesh, where voting will take place on Nov. 9.

Gujarat is one of India’s wealthiest states, with industries including chemicals, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals and Modi, who ruled the state for more than a decade, drove robust economic growth there before becoming prime minister in 2014. He’s recently inaugurated several projects including a bullet train and a dam on the River Narmada.

Read more: The State That Made India’s Narendra Modi Could Break Him

Although Congress is exuding confidence, it is still widely viewed as weak and unable to snatch power from BJP. Still, Congress has launched an offensive with party Vice President Rahul Gandhi blaming the ruling party for the note ban, the GST chaos and the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of development.

"Notwithstanding the poll surveys, it is clear that Congress is likely to give a tough fight as crowds flocking to Gandhi’s meetings suggest," Misra said.

As chief minister of Gujarat for about 12 years until 2014, Modi was known for securing large investment pledges from foreign corporations and pushing state’s per capita income. After he left his post, however, deals started to dry up and Gujarat slipped to third in 2016 when ranked on the ease of doing business in India.

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