Voting began on Thursday in a high-stakes poll in India’s western Gujarat state, where results will provide an early indication of Narendra Modi’s chances of success in the 2024 general election.
Modi comes from Gujarat and ran the state for more than a decade during a controversial tenure from 2001 that was marked by deadly communal riots. He was appointed prime minister in 2014 after his Bharatiya Janata party won the first of its two terms in national office.
The BJP, which controls 111 of the 182 seats in Gujarat’s legislative assembly, has been campaigning on its economic record with the slogan “We have made this Gujarat”. Voting is set to take place in two rounds on Thursday and Sunday.
“There is no alternative for the BJP but to form the next government because Modi is looking at 2024,” said Hari Desai, a professor at the Institute of Journalism and Communications in Ahmedabad, the state’s largest city. “If he loses Gujarat, he loses the national leadership.”
Modi and his chief ally Amit Shah, the powerful home minister, have drawn on familiar nationalist rhetoric during campaign appearances in front of large crowds in recent days.
“The BJP needs your blessing!” Shah shouted on Monday evening to a cheering crowd in Ahmedabad that chanted vande mataram, or “hail the motherland”.
At another rally this week, Modi urged voters to “take a pledge for a developed and prosperous Gujurat and a developed and prosperous India”.
“There’s just one word,” he said, “one chant here, and what’s that? Once more a BJP government!”
Modi’s party will compete against the Indian National Congress party, which dominated the country’s politics for more than four decades after independence and still has a strong base in the state.
The Aam Aadmi party, another opposition party that controls local governments in the capital region of Delhi and the western state of Punjab, is also campaigning heavily in Gujarat.
The BJP has lost ground to opposition parties in successive elections in Gujarat but is expected to hold on to power on the strength of its local party machine and support from both grassroots voters and wealthy allies, including businessmen from the diaspora.
During Modi’s term in national office, Gujarat has managed to attract high-profile investments, including one of India’s first semiconductor fabrication plants. It will be built by Taiwanese contract supplier Foxconn and Indian mining and manufacturing group Vedanta.
Ahmedabad has a new metro system, and India’s first bullet train rail line linking the city with Mumbai is under construction. In July, Modi inaugurated India’s first international bullion exchange at Gift City, a financial services hub in the state.
This week, however, rising prices, alleged corruption and a failure to generate enough new jobs were in the spotlight in the state — a preview of the issues likely to dominate the national election in 2024.
“People are hankering for change, and the reason is inflation and corruption,” said Raju Vaghela, 30, a software engineer attending a rally organised by the AAP in Ahmedabad.
The price of a cooking gas cylinder had more than doubled since 2014 to above 1,000 rupees ($12), he said, and Gujarat’s electricity prices were among India’s highest.
“Gujarat was a model state before 2014, but since Modi left the state he hasn’t even looked back or done anything,” Vaghela said.
However, Jayesh Bhai Patel, 40, a shopkeeper, said he planned to vote for the BJP, praising its record on improving roads and water supply. “Inflation would be high no matter which party is in power,” he said. “There is no other leader like Modi.”